How the West Was Won
A peek out of the passenger cabin window of a restored Fox Moth offers a time-travel glimpse of what it must have been like to fly with New Zealand’s first licensed and scheduled air service. Between 1934 and 1967 the bush pilots of Air Travel (NZ) Ltd plied the skies of the South Island’s West Coast, with remote beaches and paddocks as their aerodromes, and “anything that will go through the door” as their cargo.
It was a long and lonely haul between the West Coast and Nelson and, nearing Kawatiri Junction, Arthur Hughes left the shelter of his cab because the god-awful wind kept blowing the tarpaulin off, the cold rain and freezing sleet threatening to soak the cargo of sugar.
As he was securing his load, the headlights of his truck cut through the darkness and rain, illuminating a figure staggering towards him like a drunk. Who on Earth would be out here at this time of night? In this weather?
Though unsteady on his feet, the man wasn’t drunk. His clothes were in bloody tatters; wet, dirty and full of twigs and ferns, as though he had just crawled through the bush. He raised his hand, clearly trying to get attention, and as Hughes approached, the man pointed upwards, towards the bush-covered mountains now swallowed by the clouds and rain. Hughes caught stuttered and barely coherent words: “Aeroplane…Bert Mercer…crash…others…” The man breathed with difficulty, clutching his chest. Several of his ribs were broken.
Hughes extracted what information he could.
It transpired that flying under the weather—between the storm clouds and the mountains—a DH84 Dragon with six passengers on board was caught in fierce turbulence as it crossed over a spur. It had stalled, tumbled into a spinning nose dive and, with little altitude to recover, clipped a tree and ploughed into the forest canopy, breaking up on impact and casting its occupants down the mountainside.
The man’s name was Bruce Perry, and together with the pilot, Colin Lewis, he had set out down the mountain several hours earlier to get help. At one point, suffering from a concussion and a foot injury, Lewis could no longer go on. The other passengers, including Bert Mercer, were not in any shape to get off the mountain on their own.
Hughes tucked the survivor into the passenger seat of his cab and sped towards Murchison to muster a rescue. He found assistance short of there, at the Gowan Bridge store, where there was a telephone and the storekeepers, the Diserens family, took care of Perry. The police, it turned out, had already been alerted because the Air Travel (NZ) company’s DH84 Dragon, registration ZK-AHT, was reported missing from its scheduled Nelson-Westport-Hokitika route at 3.45 pm that day.
A rescue team was mobilised—including police, local doctors and some 20 lads from the Young Farmers Club in Murchison who happened to have their social gathering that evening. By midnight, they reached the scene of the crash and began combing the steep mountainside for survivors.
It was June 30, 1944, and the news that a plane was down and that, among others, Bert Mercer was missing swept along the length of the West Coast, wherever the waves of the Aeradio could reach.
Everyone on the Coast knew Mercer, either directly or by his reputation for courage and kindness. His name was spoken with reverence in South Westland, his exploits told and retold until they had become the fabric of the folklore.
When someone fell ill in a remote homestead, scalded themselves with boiling fat or put an axe through their foot and the weather had closed in, quelling all hopes of medical help arriving promptly, it was Mercer who came to the rescue, descending from the heavens like an angel of mercy.
He would fight the wind as it buffeted his flimsy machine of wood and fabric, bringing her down to land on the beach or in a paddock. He would load the sick or injured into the belly of the orange Fox Moth and whisk them off to care at the Hokitika hospital, often forced to fly low between the roaring sea and a slab of approaching storm cloud.
Just knowing he would come, that barring a calamity he was only a radio message away, was reassuring, easing the burden of isolation felt so acutely on the remote West Coast. By plane, the hospital was only an hour away. On foot or horseback, the only alternatives, the journey could take a week or two.
But Mercer had become more to the Coasters than their air-ambulance man. He had brought the world to them in his small plane. There was now regular mail, fresh “town” bread, newspapers and spare parts for machinery. Anything ordered via the radio or telephone and small enough to fit into the aeroplane could be delivered within days, not weeks or months as before. Sometimes, ever the gentleman dropping in for a flying visit, Mercer would just bring a bunch of wildflowers he picked up somewhere up the valley. The quiet workaholic had an impeccable safety record—save the encounters with cattle, fences and soft sand to be expected flying on the West Coast. He had flown more than 11,000 hours—more than any other pilot in the country at the time—a feat in itself given the wilderness and the weather he flew in.
But now Mercer himself was missing. Collectively, the Coast held its breath for the news from the rescue at Kawatiri Junction.
Shuttered from the rest of the country by the Southern Alps, with the treacherous, shifting sand bars set across the entrances to each of its major rivers, the Coast was our “wild west” frontier. Unlike Fiordland, which was and has effectively remained an uninhabitable wilderness, the Coast in the 1930s was not only habitable, it was rich in resources, available to anyone with the tenacity and fortitude to carve out a living against the elements.
Settlers hunted and fished, logged, milled and mined. They farmed where they managed to clear the forest and drain the swamps. It was pure survival at times. The isolation was palpable not so much because of the great distances but rather due to the geography of the place—the mountains, gorges, rivers and headlands—which necessitated long detours and timing with the weather and tides.
Travelling up or down the Coast is going against the grain of the land, over ridges and spurs, sidling the sea cliffs, forever crossing rivers which tumble down from the alps. Arawhata, Waiatoto and Haast in the south, Karangarua, Whataroa, Wanganui and Waitaha further north, and many smaller but no less tempestuous waterways in between, were all formidable obstacles to a Coaster.
There were few bridges in those days, and each river had its attendant ferryman or woman whose attention a traveller would attract with a rifle shot.
What is today a popular though arduous tramping route—the Paringa-Haast cattle track—was at that time South Westland’s main thoroughfare. The inhabitants of the Haast Coast called themselves Far-Downers, as if to stress the lengths they went to to find their promised land. Yet on a good day, when the sea sparkled, the glaciers glittered and the broccoli-green rainforest gave off its moisture as ethereal cumulus clouds, this harsh and unforgiving strip of land was among the most captivating pieces of country anywhere in the world…but the kind of country where one would greatly benefit from having a pair of wings.
Maurice Buckley, a World War I pilot, was the first to give the Coasters such wings, establishing the Arrow Aviation Company in 1923. He bought an Avro 504K biplane named Blazing Arrow which he transported by rail, wings off, from Christchurch to Hokitika and reassembled in a local garage (it would be another six months before he dared to cross coast-to-coast over the alps). The barnstorming Avro was an instant crowd-pleaser and Coasters queued for joyrides.
For the first cross-country flight, Buckley invited Dr Ebenezer Teichelmann, a well-known local mountaineer. They flew over the Franz Josef Glacier and landed on the beach in Okarito. Afterwards, Teichelmann wrote about how odd it was to look at the world from the air. “It is like taking the roof off the house and watching the performances from above.”
In September 1928, Charles Kingsford Smith flew to Christchurch in the three-engine Fokker Southern Cross, connecting New Zealand with Australia via an aerial route for the first time. Then, in January 1931, a 21-year-old Australian named Guy Menzies made the first solo crossing of the Tasman in a single-engine Avro Avian followed by a dramatic landfall in Harihari, halfway between Jackson Bay and Westport. After nearly 12 hours in the tiny cockpit, with no immediate prospects of a landing strip, Menzies decided to alight in a farm paddock, as green and inviting as a golf-course fairway. From the air it certainly did not look like a swamp and by the time Menzies realised, it was too late.
On touchdown, the Avro’s wheels dug into the spongy ground, causing the aeroplane to nose in and flip over on its back. For all its drama, the landing was soft and left Menzies unhurt but covered in mud. He was suspended, upside down by his seatbelt, and the moment he unbuckled, he fell face first into the bog. Photographs of the day show the upside-down plane in the swamp, with what looks like the district’s entire population swarming around it. Among them stands Menzies, looking sheepish. For a while, the local joke was that the Avro’s registration—G-ABCF—stood for Australian Bastards Can’t Fly.
It wasn’t long before Coasters invested in aeroplanes themselves. First, Hokitika publican Arthur Nancekivell bought a Simmonds Spartan, then also a Robinson Redwing, nicknamed the Flying Brick. The Coasters formed a federated aero club, with eight trainee pilots burning with passion for flying.
“We used to go barnstorming on Sundays to places like Omoto, Te Kinga, Ikamatua, Seven Mile Beach and Waiho,” one of them wrote later. “I remember having my pockets stuffed with pound notes at the end of the day. We had a crash one day at Te Kinga and wiped the undercart off, but before the crowd dispersed we had the wings off and the crowd carried the whole thing up to the railway station ready for dispatch to Hokitika the next day.”
It was over such receptive ground that James Cuthbert Mercer, “Bert” to all who knew him, made a reconnaissance flight in August 1933. In winter, the Coast can be especially appealing, the alps freshly whitewashed with snow right down to the forest, windless, clear and crisp. With a student pilot, Alan Cron, Mercer flew a Gipsy Moth from Wigram to Franz Josef and down to Okuru and Haast, where they overnighted, returning up the coast to Hokitika and back to Wigram. It wasn’t Mercer’s first trip down the Coast but it was a defining one. He already had a vision for a pioneering enterprise and now he was certain he wanted to see it through. Within a year, he quit his job as the Canterbury Aero Club instructor, moved to Hokitika and started his own airline, registered on 15 October 1934 as Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, operating the first licensed and scheduled air service in the country.
By then, Mercer had raised £3000 (equivalent to $320,000 today) from sources as diverse as the Christchurch Press and the pioneer families of South Westland and they became the company’s shareholders. His aircraft of choice was a DH83 Fox Moth, the 98th and the last one to be made by the British de Havilland company. By comparison with the standard open-cockpit aircraft of the day, the Fox Moth was a luxury liner housing up to four passengers in an enclosed forward cabin, with the pilot seated behind and slightly above them. Mercer opened for business on December 18, 1934, picking up the airline’s first passenger and, on the last day of that year, commenced a regular air mail service carrying 73 kg of letters to Haast and Okuru. From that day on the Fox Moth, with its orange fuselage and silver wings, became a ubiquitous and much-anticipated sight on the Coast.
Mercer’s daughter Billee Douglas wrote: “…those people just worshipped Dad because he was their liberator. He gave them a new life, which they knew about but had no way of getting to, because their choice was to live in those places.”
Mercer was born in Dunedin in 1886 and as a young man he became a bicycle mechanic. It so happened that the owner of an Invercargill bicycle shop where he was working for a time was Bob Murie, one of the country’s first balloonists. One clear southern dawn in 1907, Murie took Mercer for a flight in his gas-filled balloon, Phoenix, and it seems it was there and then that Mercer caught the aviator’s bug. Graduating from bicycles to cars to aeroplanes, he became an aircraft mechanic working at the Canterbury Aviation Company at Sockburn, learning to fly. He was the seventh graduate pilot of the school, having gained his licence after only 19 days of tuition and three hours of flying.
Once in the aviation environment, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming an instructor, making the first flight to Mt Cook, then setting a one-day distance record with a flight from Timaru to Auckland. When the Canterbury Aero Club formed in 1928, Mercer became its first pilot and instructor. By the time he set up Air Travel in 1934, he was the best-known and most experienced pilot in the South Island.
Under such steerage the new airline was an instant success, a fact the aviation historian Richard Waugh attributed both to Mercer’s vision and his personality.
Mercer was a man who got things done. Allergic to idleness, he did not shy from shovel and hoe, working to create new airstrips and improving the existing ones whenever he was not flying. He got on with everyone and easily made friends, even among the usually dour Coasters, and he won their respect with his dependability and by anticipating, then meeting, their needs.
One of those was setting up the first aerial shipping route for the Coasters’ annual quest, the whitebait. Though the little fish were most plentiful in coastal rivers, and much-desired elsewhere around the country, the fast transport or refrigeration required to get them to market fresh didn’t exist. Now Mercer, and soon his other pilots, would land on remote beaches such as at the mouth of Paringa River, collect the tins of whitebait and whisk them off to Inchbonnie, south of Lake Brunner, in time for the perishable-goods night train to Christchurch. In those days, remote homesteads used smoke signals to attract planes’ attention, and the fishermen soon developed a semaphore system so that the pilots flying above instantly knew if there was whitebait on the beach below in need of airlifting. In a good season, the whitebait-freighting flights could go from dawn to dusk. One pilot recalled that from Haast, it was not unusual to fly out more than two tons of whitebait in a day.
In the first three months of its operation, Air Travel’s Fox Moth carried 595 passengers, 835 kg of mail and 1196 kg of freight, far more than Mercer had expected. He was already applying to the aviation authorities for a licence to run a second aircraft, another Fox Moth, which would be flown by an ex-Air Force pilot, Jim Hewett, but soon even that was not enough. For the year ended June 30, 1938, the company reported the two Moths did 3411 flights carrying 4719 passengers, 28 tons of mail and eight tons of freight. As the airline’s reputation grew and its business continued to increase, Mercer had no difficulties raising capital for a larger plane.
He settled for a twin-engine de Havilland DH90A Dragonfly, which he flew from Wigram to Hokitika on October 29, 1937. Within a year, the airline added a third Fox Moth and a second Dragonfly to its fleet. Cliff Lewis, Arthur Baines and John Neave joined as extra pilots and the airline’s ground staff of mechanics and loaders also grew.
These were the halcyon days of Air Travel, with business growing from month to month, its range expanding to Westport and the newly certified airstrip in Milford Sound. “We used to fly the aircraft onto beaches, riverbeds and private paddocks—anything we could use as landing places,” Lewis recalled. “The Fox Moth was beautiful to handle and her ability to carry her own weight was stupendous for the time.”
Even with the Dragonflies, Mercer favoured elemental “stick and rudder” kind of flying, active and intensely visual, around the weather and the contours of the land. Despite pressure from aviation authorities, he never managed to learn to fly “blind” by instruments—after 20 years and 10,000 air hours, the old habits were too hard to change.
Apart from the usual mail, newspapers, passengers and whitebait, the airline flew bits of farm machinery, chickens, ducks, dogs and deer, even the odd corpse, ticketed as a passenger, when the family could not afford to charter the aircraft as a hearse.
Pilot Brian Waugh’s job brief was: “You’ll carry dentists, farmers, doctors, deerstalkers, sight-seeing types, trampers, alcoholics, dead bodies, bobby calves, crates of butter, bicycles, bread—anything that will go through the door.”
The outbreak of World War II did not affect Air Travel as it did other small airlines in New Zealand. Considered an essential service to remote Westland, its aircraft were not militarised. In fact, the business continued to grow. Mercer was engaged by the Defence Department to fly regular coastal patrols all the way to Stewart Island, and later to Solander Island and the Snares. No RNZAF aircraft had the range for such long-distance flights, and in his Dragonfly Mercer routinely undertook 12-hour sorties, mostly solo though sometimes with a radio operator, refuelling inflight from auxiliary tanks fitted into the cabin. And, because the entire aircraft fleet of the neighbouring Cook Strait Airways was requisitioned by the military, Air Travel took over its Coast-to-Nelson connection, subsidised by the government.
Despite the war in far-off lands, life on the Coast was business as usual. The whitebait continued to run, deer roared and farming boomed, and the settlers, growing in affluence, were always in need of mail, freight and charter services. All this presented Mercer with a peculiar problem: with his best airmen flocking off into the Air Force, he was desperately short of pilots. In 1942, after the last of his bush pilots had left for the war, 56-year-old Mercer wrote in his diary: “I am back to where I started eight years ago—on my own again.”
The only solution to keep the airline going was to second some of the Air Force pilots on tour-of-duty stints to the Coast. But even Air Force top guns found bush-flying a heady proposition and they often balked at overloading the aircraft which, for a small outback airline, was a fact of life. By all accounts, Mercer was a tough but fair boss, though it seems he used his own skills and standards as a yardstick, and they were hard to match. One pilot, Norm Suttie, left the airline after a few months in protest against the loads he considered too heavy for the aircraft and conditions. John Neave recalled how he repeatedly failed to get airborne off a waterlogged airfield and told Mercer as much.
“I came taxiing back and [Mercer] went out and just dragged it off the ground, did a circuit and came back in and said, ‘You can get off all right, if you try hard.’”
The steady demand on Mercer’s services and the chronic shortage of experienced pilots made it increasingly stressful to keep the airline as reliable as before. He had to cut down on scheduled flights, though he remained overstretched and overworked. It soon took a toll on his health. While in Franz Josef in September 1942, he suddenly fell ill and had to be flown home, then taken to the Hokitika hospital. He stayed there for 14 weeks but, with his home adjacent to the aerodrome, the day he was discharged he was back at work.
He wrote in his diary: “At home in Hokitika. Walking about. Legs shaky. Weather good. Had a fly today—went up and tested [the Dragonfly] AFB.” Then, just as things were beginning to mend and settle, a string of serious accidents hit the little airline and Mercer took them all extremely personally, perhaps because, as his daughter Billee recounted, “he just didn’t have accidents”.
Thus far, save the minor scrapes and dings caused by a charging bull or soft beach sand, Air Travel’s safety record had been exemplary. Mercer had only one major prang, on Bruce Bay beach, when the Dragonfly slewed out of control on landing and its port undercarriage collapsed. The entire settlement turned up to help lift the aircraft above the high-tide mark. The repairs took six months and had to be done in the Hokitika workshop, requiring an epic retrieval of the plane from Bruce Bay. Its fuselage was too wide to easily fit through the coastal road’s many single-lane bridges. At each bridge, the fuselage had to be swung like a pendulum from one truss span to another, a four-hour feat of engineering, balance and wits.
Such incidents, however, only increased the airline’s reputation among Coasters, who held self-reliance in the highest esteem. But on the grey and drizzly morning of December 21, 1942, public confidence in Air Travel suffered a terrible blow. Arthur Baines took off in a Dragonfly from Westport, with four passengers onboard. Fifteen minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 1200 m, he watched in disbelief as his starboard propeller fell off and disappeared out of sight. Down to only one engine, Baines radioed that he was coming back around for an emergency landing. To avoid coastal mountains, he had taken a course over the sea, and despite the full throttle on his port engine the Dragonfly was rapidly losing altitude.
Baines realised they would not make it back to land and decided to ditch the plane near the mouth of the Buller River, the town’s harbour. He could see SS Kakapo close inshore, and in response to his radio distress call, other boats were already readying their crews. Help was at hand.
With all doors, windows and hatches open, and the passengers moved back to weigh down the aft end of the plane, Baines eased the Dragonfly into a tail-dragging landing in heavy swell. The fabric plane took in water fast and all but one occupant scrambled out onto the wings as it foundered tail-up. A lifeboat was already on its way if they could only hang on a little longer. Regrettably, none of the passengers could swim. Within minutes of the Dragonfly’s tail vanishing under the heavy seas the lifeboat picked up Baines. It was too late for the others.
In early March, the aircraft’s wayward propeller washed up on a beach in Patea, on the southern Taranaki coast, and, as it was in nearly perfect condition, the board of inquiry’s verdict was that the propeller came off due to an uneven or inadequate tightening of the bolts. As a consequence, Air Travel’s ground engineer,
“Aussie” Openshaw, lost his licence. The fact that the Dragonfly was not carrying life jackets was also painfully pointed out.
Baines and Mercer parted with a fistfight, but Openshaw doggedly insisted that the Dragonfly had been fit to fly. Nine months later, a fishing launch trawled out bits of aircraft fabric from a depth of 24 fathoms (44 m) just north of Denniston and Openshaw mounted an impressive salvage operation to find the cause of the failure and clear his name. But as he reported to the Civil Aviation Authority: “The aircraft broke surface but…owing to heavy swell at the time we had to abandon it. The aircraft acts as a sea anchor and whilst being hauled towards the boat with winches it very nearly overturned the boat twice. The wire ropes were cut to save the situation.” The Dragonfly sank again, taking with it the mystery of the malfunction.
On October 29, 1943, another grave accident occurred and the public spotlight once again turned upon Openshaw. Acting as a relieving pilot, he flew four women holidaying in Franz Josef from their Women’s Auxiliary Air Force duties for a 15-minute aerial tour of the glacier. When the Fox Moth failed to return, a major rescue operation got under way. Both Mercer and Jim Hewett took to the air and promptly spotted the wreck of the Fox Moth on the upper Franz Josef Glacier. There were no people in sight, no signs of life anywhere, and soon a solemn procession of locals left Waiho to climb up the icefall, expecting to retrieve five bodies.
The bodies—cold and bruised but alive and happy to see their saviours—were found during another flight, crowding atop a rocky pinnacle near the site of the crash, waving their coats. The rescue party reached them soon after but it was late in the day and they all had to spend a cold night on the névé. Of the five, only Openshaw suffered an injury when his head struck the instrument panel on impact. The four women were shocked but unhurt.
Aviation historian Richard Waugh later quoted Spencer Barnard, a contemporary aircraft engineer, as saying, “What happened was a very controlled forced landing. He was forced down by a downdraft, stronger than usual… It was due to the skill of ‘Aussie’ as a pilot that there were no injuries to any of his passengers.”
But Mercer would not have any of that. Though there was no official inquiry, the cause of the crash was put down to Openshaw’s inexperience in mountain flying. Mercer refused to employ him again even though he turned up to work every morning, sitting out the day in his car outside Mercer’s office. The Moth was salvaged from the glacier, tobogganed and backpacked down the icefall and ferried on a boat to the road bridge. However, the repairs required almost a complete rebuild and the aircraft was out of service for months. This had far-reaching repercussions for the Coast, for one bringing the whitebaiting season to a premature end. Air Travel just did not have enough aircraft and pilots to keep flying out the bait before it spoiled.
Aussie Openshaw’s troubled career had one final chapter. In January 1945, he was a co-pilot on board an Australian National Airways flight when the Stinson Model A broke up in midair and crushed like a bolide into the red Victorian soil. But before Openshaw would meet his demise, Mercer’s own mortality would be tested high on the mountain slope above Kawatiri Junction.
It was after midnight when the long string of rescuers reached the remains of the DH84 Dragon. Air Travel’s accountant, Maurice Dawe, had died on impact, and the other passengers suffered serious injuries, including a broken pelvis and a fractured skull. Bert Mercer, who was only a passenger on the flight, had a broken leg and extensive chest injuries but it was hypothermia rather than his injuries that killed him, before the rescuers even arrived.
Without its guiding light and motivator the airline limped through the last years of World War II. In 1947, the government bought out all of the country’s small air services and amalgamated them into the National Airways Corporation (NAC). But where Mercer and co managed to turn a small though tidy profit, NAC—using the same pilots and aircraft—ran the West Coast operation at a consistent loss, too large and inflexible to cater for what was essentially a personal and always rather unorthodox service. By 1956, NAC sold the West Coast operation to a Queenstown aviation company run by well-known pilot Fred “Popeye” Lucas, more a Mercer archetype than a corporate character.
Under Lucas’s pilotage the newly formed West Coast Airways saw another decade of profitable return to the ways of the bush. But the times were changing fast. Helicopters, deemed ideal machines for the West Coast terrain, were now taking over a lion’s share of the business, and in 1965, after decades of earthworks and construction, the roads from Paringa to Haast and over the Haast Pass into Otago were finally completed, ending the Coast’s isolation. Overnight, the demand for air-freight, mail and passenger services had all but disappeared. In April 1967, Brian Waugh, the last of the West Coast Airways bush pilots, flew the airline’s veteran Dominie aircraft, relocating it to Queenstown, and thus the era of pioneer fixed-wing aviation on the Coast came to an end.
By then, however, a new generation of men and flying machines had already begun. They were the helicopter pilots of the “deer wars” years and some of them are still flying today. Their names, like those of Mercer and his pilots, are spoken with quiet reverence by those who had to call on their services and witnessed their aptitude.
As they did in Mercer’s days, the Coasters still bestow their best bush pilots with hero status, even if they do it in their own unconventional ways. To wit, when Dave Saxton of Haast, one of the most experienced helicopter bush pilots in the world, and his aviator son Morgan were convicted and imprisoned in February 2008 for stealing some of the Ngai Tahu tribe’s pounamu (greenstone) from South Westland’s Cascade Plateau, the locals were incensed. They mounted a campaign to “get their boys back” and, to attract media attention to their cause, the women of Haast produced a semi-nude calendar titled “Wild on Saxton”. The women who volunteered as models were not dainty centrefold bunnies—they could muster wild cattle, shoot a deer or fix a diesel engine on a cray boat.
(A West Coast Airways pilot once commented that “some of the South Westland women could knit barbed wire”, and this comment probably still applies.)
Surprising and heartfelt as the calendar was, it certainly helped the cause. The Saxtons were released on bail and, pending an appeal, their air service was restored. Sadly, in the way of many bush pilots, Morgan Saxton died only months later when his helicopter plummeted into Lake Wanaka and came to a stop at the bottom 70 m below.
Even though a modern all-weather “campervan highway” now parallels the entire coastline, the bush-flying tradition pioneered by Mercer and upheld by pilots like the Saxtons is sure to continue for generations to come. From Karamea to the Cascade, helicopters are now the taxis of the hinterland. It’s not only because wings, whether fixed or rotary, are an essential utility on the Coast, but also because flying there is an adventure all by itself. The true grandeur of the Coast is best appreciated from the air, whether you are a pilot or a passenger. From up there, flying low over the glaciers, rivers and steaming rainforest, you can see the world with the eyes of the gods.