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'RMS Awatere' Lagoon stranding 1954


Air New Zealand released its book “Celebrating 75 Years” in 2014 and on page 52 it mentions an engine malfunction coming into Aitutaki and the repair work needed. When Harry Rippon read this he knew that an aircraft had been stranded in Aitutaki but it wasn’t due to an engine failure, although this could have been on a different occasion. What Harry remembers is the following.

It was back in the first half of 1954 when a young Harry Rippon, who worked in the metal shop at Mechanics Bay Auckland, received an urgent call from TEAL engineering management. A flying boat was stuck in the lagoon at the island atoll of Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands. The aircraft was “RMS AWATERE” ZK-AMN, a Short S45 Solent IV flying boat and had been on a scheduled service en-route from Papeete to New Zealand via Aitutaki on the Coral Route.

The aircraft had hit a coral reef in the Aitutaki lagoon and had seriously damaged the port side float of the flying boat. It was now marooned there until an engineering team could be rushed to the site to carryout repairs. So Harry, employee number 101, (20143 after the merger with NAC) when he joined TEAL in 1948 straight from the RNZAF, along with Mick Abraham and another engineer were asked to leave immediately. They boarded an RNZAF Bristol Freighter at Whenuapai for a flight to Aitutaki via Fiji and Samoa with the equipment needed to carry out the repair. They were only one hour out from New Zealand when the aircraft had to return because they needed to get the parts to keep the seats in place that they needed to take with them.

The flight to Aitutaki on the Bristol Freighter took them 3 days, overnighting at the Grand Pacific Hotel, Suva and staying privately in Apia. They eventually landed at Aitutaki on the runway built of crushed coral by the Americans during World War 2.

The runway was at the northern tip of the atoll and they then needed to travel about 12 kilometres to the south eastern part of the lagoon to the motu (or islet) of Akaiami where ZK-AMN was stranded.

Aitutaki Akaiami

Soon after the engineering team arrived the Bristol Freighter was soon winging its way to New Zealand with the flying boat passengers aboard.

Passengers boarding the Bristol Freighter

Now that they had arrived at Akaiami their first task was to build a raft to ferry the damaged parts to land and to provide a platform to work under the wing. Once the raft was built they needed to transfer the float to shore.

Towing the Float to Akaiami

Landing on Akaiami

Once ashore, they were able to examine the float damage more closely.

When the full extent of the float damage was determined they set about the repair process.

It was also discovered that the collision with the coral had torn the strut out of the wing so this required dismantling and a repair carried out to the strut and anchor points on the underside of the port wing. The raft was stacked with fuel drums and used as the temporary work platform.

Finally, all damaged parts had been removed.

ZK-AMN was then left in the lagoon without its port wing float or struts while the repair work was carried out on land.

Accommodation on the motu of Akaiami was pretty basic for the crew as well as Harry and the repair team. They slept in temporary accommodation in island buildings and ate whatever was available. There was an abundance of fish from the lagoon which was cooked on an open fire.

Time then came to install the repaired parts to the flying boat. First the struts...

Then the float.

Once completed the aircraft went on a test flight. You can see Akaiami above the port wing beyond the reef and the main islet of Aitutaki in the distance.

In total the repairs took five days work and once completed the repair team left on board the Solent flying boat for Suva, where they then changed aircraft and returned to New Zealand on a Douglas DC6. On returning to work in New Zealand, Harry and the rest of the repair team received letters of thanks from TEAL management.

Epilogue

Harry eventually retired from Air New Zealand in 1982 and continues to live in Otahuhu with Gwen his wife. Now in his mid-90’s he spends time working in his garden, plays bowls and enjoys reminiscing about his career with TEAL/Air New Zealand and his Aitutaki adventure.

This is where Harry’s story ends but the future for “RMS AWATERE” ZK-AMN was not so happy, it was withdrawn from service by TEAL and stored at Auckland in June 1954 and later that year was sold to Aquila Airways Ltd, London. Aquila Airways operated the aircraft on routes to the Canary Islands, Madeira and Montreaux. It was then sold to ARTOP, Portugal in October 1961. ARTOP suspended services shortly thereafter due to financial problems.

The aircraft was then abandoned on a beach on the River Tagus, Lisbon, sadly left to rot and was finally broken up for scrap in 1971.

AWATERE in Lisbon

As told to Gary Collins by Harry Rippon 2016 (except the fate of the Awatere)

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