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Early days at NAC

I was 22 and open to try a different Job. In early 1948 my Mother pointed out an advertisement in the Otago Daily Times asking for applicants for positions in the branch office to be opened for the new New Zealand Airways Corporation. I said that I was not interested as I did not want a job of writing tickets all day. Three months later they advertised for a clerk and by then I had changed my mind and applied for the position. I was playing soccer over at Ellis Park and a fellow player and good friend, Presley Peterson, told me he was leaving the bank as he was starting on Monday with National Airways. That really put me in the dumps as it was obviously the job I had applied for. But come Monday morning I had a phone call from the local Branch Manager to say they needed another clerk and was I still interested. Was I ever! By the following Monday I had started as I did not want Presley to get too much of a lead in service.

The new office facilities were so modern, the staff so young and the work so interesting I could hardly believe that I would be paid for my duties. At that period of the airline, before most people owned a car, tickets were for travel from one city caught a taxi from home to check in at the air centre for their travel before boarding the coach for the airport. Few people, mainly from Mosgiel or rural locations, reported direct to Taieri airport. Similarly passengers, baggage, freight and mail arriving at Taieri Airport were loaded on the coach for transport to town. For the few passengers not taking this service a special 'airport only' label was placed on their baggage so that it could be collected immediately off the baggage trolley.

Dominie ZK-AKU at Westport, August 1954 (Alexander Turnbull Library)

It was a good time for city staff as they met and processed most of the passengers passing through and established good friendships, especially with the regular passengers such as the local MPs, Wally Hudson, Ethel Emma McMillan and Defense Minister, Fred Jones. This led to one of my most embarrassing moments one early shift morning when I was on check-in duty. We had a staff joke whereby we called Mrs McMillan 'Mrs. Hudson', as she always asked for a cabin seat next to him. This particular morning there was an urgent phone call for Mrs. McMillan just after the the coach boarding call had been made. I rushed out to the coach and called out “phone call for you Mrs. Hudson”. I don't know who was the more startled, she or me. However nothing was ever said.

Passengers were handed back their copy of the ticket with baggage check attached and their aircraft seat number recorded. The knowledgeable passengers knew which seats they wanted - a window seat near the rear on the port side, thus clear of the wing, with a good view of the Alps. For the DC3 aircraft the seat numbers ranged from 1 to 26 but there was no seat 13, this became 12A. ln summer I always preferred a forward seat at the centre of balance at the wing root as the thermals from the Canterbury plains and the different temperatures over the many rivers caused a lot of distressing-motion which was accentuated toward the rear of the cabin. Apparently an aircraft could move in three different motions at the same time. As a staff member I couldn't be seen to be sick. In rough weather pilots sometimes flew out to sea to miss the worst of a southerly battering, but on approaching Dunedin, inevitably came low up the harbour to cross lookout point. Often this was the finish for passengers holding out against stomach-churning lurches of the aircraft and it only took one passenger to fill an airsick bag for the smell to set everyone else off.

In the early days of the airline when passengers reported at the air centre for their flights we took the top copy of the ticket, placed their luggage on the scale, recorded the weight of our weigh-bill and on a destination label which was attached to the bag. We then and asked the passenger to step on the scale and their weight was also recorded on the weigh-bill. Some ladies were embarrassed by this request and started taking off top coats and leaving handbags and cabin bags on the floor to reduce weight which induced us to make a further request as everything that went on an aircraft was weighed for documentation. Conversely men often told us that they must have lost weight. We were very nonchalant about this process so as not to embarrass anyone but we did know some of the record breakers, such as Mr Piaka, MP for Eastern Maori and our local Mr Stuart Glendining, both of whom were over 300lbs a significant weight for those days. Each of these men could be a problem for the Invercargill Dominie service, both to fit in the small seats and for the Traffic Clerk to get the aircraft weight and balance correct. I particularly remember in 1954 when working at Taieri Airport I checked in Ed. Hillary, just back from his conquest of Mount Everest. He still looked wan and thin but checked iu at 220 lbs of bone and muscle. After a number of years Air Department allowed us to do our aircraft loading calculations on the basis of an average 170 lbs per adult and 105 lbs per child and 3.5 lbs for a baby. This cut out the need to individually weigh each passenger and was a great time-saver plus cancelling the need to add up great lists of 'long tots'.

ZK-APK at Gisborne in December 1957 (Gisborne Photo News)

Each passenger had a baggage allowance of 35 lbs or for overseas passengers, 44 lbs. For any weight over that the passenger was charged excess baggage rates similar to the freight charges according to weight and destination. It did take a lot of packing to bring a suitcase up to 35 lbs but inevitably those with several packages or bags exceeded the allowable weight and the requested charge sometimes led to objections by the passenge€r. At the Dunedin Air Centre we had a uniformed porter named John Smail an ex-London fireman who had won an OBE during the Blitz. He was a big friendly man who was a favourite with the lady passengers, all of whom he called 'Dear'. John did most of the Air Centre weigh-ins and was a tiger as far as excess luggage went. Often when asking for the relevant charge he was told, "but I didn't have to pay when I came down from Wellington" (or wherever). "In that case" said. John, "I'll have to charge you for that too”. This immediately put a stop to the discussion.

Passengers were also allowed 9lbs. cabin allowance which was normally stowed in the cabin rack above the seats. As this was an open rack we needed to be strict with passengers to not exceed this weight as in rough weather the racks often emptied bags, coats, magazines and satchels on the passengers beneath. There were the few passengers who tried to exceed this allowance to save excess charges on their main luggage and hid the extras behind pillars and seats. One morning, regular passenger Mrs Frew, when asked about an overnight bag that she had not taken onto the scales with her said, "oh it’s nothing - just a few things for my daughter." She could hardly lift it and when the bag was examined it was found to contain many jars of jam. Another time an Air Force Group Captain and his aide checked in but he did not include his leather satchel as checked baggage. To me it obviously exceeded the 9lbs cabin limit. When asked to place it on the scales he became abusive and when he did, it was found to weigh 22 lbs. He was told that it would have to be included with his checked baggage and carried in the aircraft hold. This led to a stand-off as he said it contained important defence documents and he would take it into the cabin. There was a murmured conversation with his aide and he cooled down and then agreed to release it for checked baggage.

It was important to dispatch the coach on time so that it arrived at the airport at least 15 minutes before aircraft takeoff time so that there was no delay to baggage, mail and freight being loaded on the aircraft. This was even more critical when the traffic clerk joined the coach to complete the documentation at the airport. Often the coach would arrive at the Mosgiel railway crossing to find the railways were going through a shunting exercise that halted all vehicle traffic - a nail-biting situation for the early morning clerk. Later with full-time staff at Taieri Airport the weights and seat numbers were phoned through which enabled staff to partially complete documentation before the coach arrived.


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