Published date: 7 December 2021

Today (Tuesday 7 December) is the UN’s International Civil Aviation Day. The ‘day’ was established to recognise the massive contribution civil aviation makes to the global economy, and in connecting people and families all over the world.

Next week, after almost 2 years of border closures and travel restrictions, a 400% increase in jet flights is forecast around the country - between 14 and 15 December - under our new traffic light system.

That’s the sort of kick start we need. 

So today’s a good day to look back, by the numbers, at the history, quirky and otherwise, of New Zealand’s civil aviation.

2 x American ‘aeronauts’, who amazed and thrilled New Zealand crowds in the late 19th century by employing the earliest forms of civil aviation in this country: ballooning and parachuting. In 1889, American acrobat  ‘Professor’ Thomas Baldwin made a death-defying leap from a hot air balloon about 1000 feet above Dunedin, using a parachute to descend safely to earth.

He was followed a year later by self-styled ‘aerial queen’ Leila Adair, who swung on a trapeze suspended from the balloon as it rose. She, too, returned to earth in a parachute. Her feats were not without trauma. She landed in a mudhole, in a tree, in the Rangitoto Channel, was knocked out during a West Coast landing, and hospitalised after hitting a Christchurch clothesline.

1 x controversial claim that the first aviator in the world to ‘fly’ a powered, heavier-than-air machine was South Canterbury farmer and inventor, Richard Pearse. In March 1903, he lifted off in a machine made of bamboo, canvas and wire. Although there was some steel in there as well. It was, however, more like a ‘long hop’ and Pearse himself never claimed to have been the world’s first to fly. Nine months later, the American Wright brothers did make a sustained, controlled flight, taking global honours for being the first to do so.

1 x Walsh brother, Vivian, who did make New Zealand’s first controlled, sustained flight – in February 1910 at Papakura. Vivan, and his brother Leo, went on to form the country’s first flying school – at Kohimarama on Auckland Harbour. Using flying boats they trained about 100 pilots to serve in British flying services during World War One.

33 x British military aircraft, gifted to New Zealand after WWI finished, to allocate to individual pilots (many of whom had served as military pilots), flying schools and the country’s first aero clubs.

3 x people on the first flight to cross Cook Strait, in 1920. The pilot, two passengers and a stack of mail departed Christchurch and landed on Trentham Racecourse in Upper Hutt. Parliamentarians, assembling for that day’s session were among those who rushed on to the streets of Wellington as the 110-hp Le Rhone Avro roared overhead.

1 x highest mountain in New Zealand – Aoraki/Mt Cook – soared over in September 1920 at a height of 4,267 metres, clearing the summit by 543 metres – in the military combat aircraft, the de Havilland DH-4 open cockpit bi-plane. The pilot of a centenary flight, in 2020, flying a similar aircraft, told RNZ he needed seven layers of clothing to keep out the cold. Those pioneers were tough.

9 x hours duration of the first one-day flight between Invercargill and Auckland, in 1921. People were amazed how fast it was. Today that same 1,173 km flight takes only 2 hours.

2 x of the regulations included in the Aviation Act 1918 – flying schools needing a licence and it being an offence for someone without a flying certificate to have control of an aircraft.

1 x trans-Tasman tragedy, in January 1928, when two air force pilots – Captain George Hood and Lieutenant John Moncrieff – attempted to be the first to cross the ditch, between Sydney and Trentham Racecourse. Their wives, Laura Hood and Dorothy Moncrieff, were among the 10,000 people gathered at the racecourse to welcome them. But the pilots never appeared. The men, and their Ryan monoplane have never been found.

30,000 x excited New Zealanders waiting at Wigram aerodrome in Christchurch, to greet Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in their Fokker, Southern Cross, from Sydney, later in 1928. The weather was terrible and Kingsford Smith was forced to fly blind for much of journey as heavy rain or ice coated the windshield. The ordeal trip took 14 hours.

12 x aero clubs, established by 1929.

9 x times the Tasman was crossed, during 1934.

10.5 x hours for New Zealand solo pilot Jean Batten to fly from Sydney to Auckland in 1936. She, too, suffered terrible weather, and at one point thought she’d missed New Zealand completely. But after about nine hours, she sighted land (New Plymouth) and flew on to land at Mangere aerodrome, again welcomed by ecstatic crowds.

10 x passengers on the first commercial flight for Trans Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL) in a flying boat, between Mechanics Bay in Auckland and Rose Bay in Sydney, in 1940. The flight took nine hours.

321,747 x number of people flying domestically on National Airways Corporation (NAC) flights in 1951. In 1999, that had increased to almost 5,000,000.

257 x people on board Air New Zealand Antarctic sightseeing flight, who died on the slopes of Mt Erebus, in 1979. It remains New Zealand’s worst aviation tragedy.

30 x agricultural companies operating, mainly using the de Havilland Tiger Moth, in the early 1950s.

52 x signatory states (which included New Zealand) to the 1944 Chicago Convention, bringing the International Civil Aviation Organization into being. New Zealand is now one of 193 countries that make up ICAO, working to improve international aviation safety, security and efficiency.

1000+ x Aviation Security Service staff (many screen your bags at the airport!) although right now, together with police and army personnel, there are an additional 156 Avsec officers helping to support managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

28 x explosive detector dog teams, working at airports.

13,000 x licensed pilots, engineers, and air traffic controllers in the New Zealand civil aviation system.

800 x aviation organisations, including airlines and flying schools in the New Zealand civil aviation system.

5,000 x registered aircraft in the New Zealand civil aviation system.

1,832 x aircraft flying in New Zealand airspace with the latest satellite-based technology (it’s called ADS-B and replaces radar), enabling air traffic controllers and pilots to ‘see’ other aircraft, reducing the risk of mid-air collisions.

132 x drone businesses are certified and drones flown for commercial purposes in NZ

NZD $40 billion estimated annual contribution to the New Zealand economy by air cargo and international tourism passengers (in 2019) according to the airline industry group BARNZ.

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