75 years on, first flight still fascinates

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IT was an exciting adventure for a child aged 4.

John McDougall, and his parents Jack and Henrietta, were among the first paying passengers on the Union Airways of NZ Ltd first commercial flight out of Invercargill Airport.

Today marked 75 years of that event… November 7, 1944.

Not that you could call it much of an airport back then, he said.

“It was a gravel road to the airport…”

There were two army huts and a grass runway, or as the newspaper of the day described it… “the plane touched down on the green sward of the Invercargill airport”.

“The sides of the path were wooden, full of stones… I remember walking on the wash stones from the Oreti… it wasn’t easy for a 4-year-old.”

It was during the war years, so to see a plane, especially of that size in Invercargill was enormous, because almost everything else was overseas, he said.

“It was the first time I had seen a big plane… it was a big bird.”

In a newspaper article to mark the 50th anniversary in 1994, Mrs McDougall said “We were both anxious (John and I). We took John along so he could be the youngest person to fly and he was just old enough to remember it.”

Mr McDougall said he remembered being picked up from the Union Steamship office in The Crescent, next to the former Wright Stephenson & Co office, and taken by a Southland Daily News Bus “side loader” to the airport.

“When you are a 4-year-old, these things stand out,” he said.

Dignitaries of the day were given a free flight the day before.

Old newspaper clippings with photographs from the inaugural flight of a regular air service between Invercargill and Dunedin which was made by a Union Airways Ltd Lockheed Electra plane showing the officials and passengers before the first commercial flight the next day in November 1944.

The deputy mayor, Mr W Aitchison, was quoted in the paper of the day as saying, “This is something we have been looking forward to for years” and “he envisaged the day when aircraft would be landing in Invercargill after completing flights from Australia”.

As well as the pilot and co-pilot, the silver two-engined Lockheed Electra carried 10 passengers, each with a window seat.

Mr McDougall remembered the flight vividly.

“We had a beautiful view of all the farmlands… they didn’t fly so high in those days…

“We could really count the cows and everything.”

The “runway” at Taieri was also a grass strip, he said.

Then the family had the excitement of staying in a hotel in Dunedin… “three stories up”.

He remembered the lights in Dunedin as there were no restrictions, although it was wartime, and the old tram cars.

Jack Kitson, from Invercargill, also came along with the family, Mr McDougall said.

“Dad and Mr Kitson were a bit late getting back after a night out on the town and were locked out and had to climb up the fire escape.

“Mum and I were the only two who went to breakfast in the hotel the next day.”

Mr McDougall and his parents flew back to Invercargill the following day.

All the excitement was a bit much for a small child… having to use the sick bag on way home after “eating too many lollies”.

Clocking up a number of local aviation firsts, Mr McDougall, his wife, Margaret, and their family, also flew on the first direct international flight from Invercargill to Melbourne in 2015 through House of Travel Lakers Invercargill.

“I was always living for the first international flight out of Invercargill… which I did a few years ago.”

As for the old Lockheed Electra plane, it now resides in the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, Mr McDougall said.

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