At the same time as domestic air services were being established after 1935, moves were afoot to extend them across the Tasman Sea to Australia. F. Maurice Clarke and Norris Falla again emerged as key initiators. They had an ally in A. E. Rudder, the Sydney agent for the British national airline Imperial Airways (later BOAC).
Their proposal for a joint trans-Tasman venture between Union Airways and Imperial Airways won political sympathy. This was still an age when international policy was shaped by British imperial perspectives. Imperial Airways had already joined with the Australian airline Qantas to extend its mail and passenger service to Brisbane, and the Empire Air Mail Programme had begun, initially between Britain, Africa and Canada. A trans-Tasman service would splice the last section of an air link between Britain and the southern hemisphere.
In 1937 the New Zealand, Australian and British governments finally negotiated the structure of a new company, Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL), to provide the trans-Tasman link. Shares in TEAL were divided among the participants: Imperial Airways, Qantas, the New Zealand government, and Union Airways. TEAL’s flights from Mechanics Bay in Auckland to Rose Bay in Sydney began in 1940, using the Short S30 Empire flying boats Aotearoa and Awarua. The inaugural flight on 30 April carried 10 passengers and took 10 hours. During the Second World War, TEAL’s trans-Tasman flights continued even as domestic aviation came to a halt.
Britain also had colonial and strategic interests in the Pacific, where Anglo-American rivalry was growing. New Zealand shared many of these interests – in Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tonga. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, British and New Zealand personnel were surveying possible flying-boat landing sites in the Pacific. New Zealand’s strategy for aviation in the Pacific strengthened during and after the war.
In the 1930s, however, American aviation interests, in particular Pan American Airways (Pan Am), took the initiative, securing approval from the New Zealand government in 1935 to fly into Auckland. Pan Am’s Pacific flying-boat service between San Francisco and Mechanics Bay began in December 1937, but was curtailed almost immediately by the loss of Captain Edwin Musick and his crew when their aircraft exploded. Flights did not resume until 1940, but ceased again in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
TEAL’s trans-Tasman services to Sydney introduced the stately Empire, Sandringham and Solent flying boats to Mechanics Bay and later Evans Bay in Wellington. For 20 years the flying boats provided a memorable spectacle for thousands of people, as well as a luxurious style of air travel that few would experience again. TEAL’s renowned Coral Route from Auckland to Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti contributed its own distinctive legends to the era of flying boats. There was also a more prosaic service from Auckland and Wellington to the Chatham Islands.
That the era of flying boats lasted as long as it did was largely due to the political structure of TEAL, and post-war loyalty to Britain. The decision to re-equip TEAL with British-made Solent flying boats from 1949 was bitterly criticised by advocates of land planes such as the American Douglas DC4. TEAL subsequently acknowledged the criticism itself, when it introduced a DC4 Christchurch–Melbourne service in 1951, and began phasing out its flying boat services.
The conversion to land planes began in 1954, when the popular Auckland–Sydney service was switched to DC6 aircraft, using Whenuapai as their terminus. It was completed in 1960, when land planes took over the Coral Route.