Public interest in aviation was stirred by a new generation of long-distance fliers, who led the way for future international air services.
In 1927 Charles Lindbergh had famously flown the Atlantic. For New Zealand pilots, the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia was a closer challenge. Although aircraft had flown in stages from England to Australia, none had yet crossed the Tasman in either direction. In January 1928 two New Zealand airforce pilots, Captain George Hood and Lieutenant John Moncrieff, attempted the crossing from Sydney in a single-engine aircraft. An excited crowd assembled at Trentham in Lower Hutt to welcome their arrival. They never appeared – men and aircraft vanished forever.
Only six months later however, the Australians Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm and crew, made the first historic crossing of the Pacific from California to Queensland, in the now legendary three-engined Fokker, Southern Cross.
In September they continued to New Zealand. After a stormy night flight, the Southern Cross circled Wellington on the way to Wigram, where it landed before a crowd estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000. The event was filmed and broadcast live over the radio. The nation shared in the jubilant celebrations.
Novel and daring aviation feats continued to capture people’s imagination into the 1930s. Once a route had been pioneered, it remained for someone to do it faster, or in a smaller aircraft, or alone, and for women to make their mark in ventures undertaken mostly by men.
In 1931 an Australian, Guy Menzies, became the first to fly the Tasman solo, and in a single-engine aircraft. In the same year, Englishman Francis Chichester threaded his way alone from New Zealand to Australia via Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. In 1933 and 1934, the ever-popular Kingsford Smith and Ulm were back, joining forces in crowd-pulling tours. Mrs Ulm and a friend, travelling as passengers, became the first women to fly over the Tasman.
In 1934 the Tasman was crossed by air nine times. If there was a danger of the novelty wearing off, public excitement in New Zealand and around the world was stirred afresh by the record-breaking feats of the New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten. Flying alone in 1934 from England to Australia, she became the fastest solo woman pilot to achieve the distance. Two years later she broke all records, and then on 16 October 1936 extended her flight across the Tasman – the first woman pilot to do so – and in record time. The crowds were ecstatic.