by Roger McDonald


This article was published in the November-December 1987 issue of Australian Flying magazine. It appears here courtesy of the author Roger McDonald. Unfortunately the images from the article are no longer available but the text of the article follows.


To most air travellers the term "international airline" brings to mind a large company operating widebodied aircraft, seating around 400 people on routes stretching across the world.

Today, this conception would fit most international carriers coming into Australia. However, Australia is served by one international carrier with a four-aircraft fleet with a carrying capacity of 36 passengers!

Norfolk Airlines is owned by residents of Norfolk Island, an Australian Territory situated 1600 kms north-east of Sydney. It is the regular transport section of Norfolk Island Airlines Limited, a company formed in September 1974 to embrace the embryo charter operations started in late 1973 as Air Norfolk.

A group of residents headed by the late Charles Herman decided to form a local company to operate regular services to Brisbane and to give the island an air contact with their closest Australian neighbour, Lord Howe Island, some 500 miles to the south.

The company commenced charter flights in September 1974 using a leased Aero Commander aircraft, this was followed by a couple of Beech King Air 90s and by February 1975, an order was placed for a new Beech King Air 200 for delivery the following September.

The new King Air, VH-IBC, entered service on August 31 and the company applied for a commuter licence for its Brisbane-Norfolk Island and Norfolk-Lord Howe routes.

The Lord Howe to Brisbane leg was operated as a 'closed' charter to the company's Brisbane based subsidiary, Norfolk Island Airlines Booking Centre.

Another King Air, VH-IBD, was delivered in February 1978; increasing the frequency of flights between Brisbane and Norfolk Island. With the introduction of the additional King Air the aircraft and crew, which were previously based on Norfolk Island, were relocated to Brisbane for greater operational flexibility.

The company then commenced operating night freight flights between Brisbane and Cairns for Ansett Air Freight. Two additional King Air aircraft were purchased in mid 1979 and to find extra work for these aircraft, further night freight flights were organised and a weekly Lord Howe Island-Melbourne 'closed charter' flight commenced.

The rapid expansion of the company, coupled with a downturn in the Australian economy and rapidly rising fuel prices, caught the airline with an excess of aircraft. In a move to gain additional work, the company signed an agreement with Fiji's Air Pacific to operate some of their low density routes. The agreement ended about four months later when Air Pacific acquired Bandeirante aircraft.

Additionally, plans were announced to operate between Brisbane and Adelaide via Canberra but these never eventuated. Financial problems overtook the company at the end of 1980 and a provisional liquidator was appointed. The outcome had creditors approve a scheme to allow the company to trade out its difficulties.

The reasons behind the financial problems included: the airline having too many aircraft, a shortfall in anticipated freight work, too many staff due to maintaining the offices in both Norfolk and Brisbane and a high turnover of managers which had caused stability problems within the company.

The financial problems caused two King Air aircraft, VH-IBE and VH-KTE, to be sold, while services were pruned with only VH-IBC being used on regular services. The remaining aircraft VH-IBD, was leased out to Coddair Airlines and used by Norfolk during peak periods. Management of the company was moved to Brisbane although all 76 shareholders were residents of Norfolk Island.

An improving financial position under the receivership allowed the airline to again expand and in March 1983, it announced the acquisition of the Sydney-Lord Howe route from Avdev Airlines along with their King Air VH-AAZ.

Norfolk commenced operations on the route and maintained a weekly flight through Newcastle. In July 1984, this route was marketed as Lord Howe Island Airlines to provide a local identity. Coolangatta was included on one of the Brisbane-Lord Howe return flights each week.

The parent company came out of receivership in September 1984 with the receiver/manager, Lionel Freedman, retaining his job as general manager. A big expansion in the company took place in June 1985 with the acquisition of the assets of the failed Coddair Airlines along with their routes and the simultaneous acquisition of a 45 per cent shareholding in the Perth headquartered and Brisbane based Corpair.

Freedman stated Norfolk Island Airlines would operate all regular services while Corpair would operate all charter activities. As the airline had lost its solely Island connection, the title was shortened to Norfolk Airlines.

The airline then commenced services between Brisbane-Toowoomba-Roma and Rockhampton-Middlemount-Dysart-Moranbah-Clermont and Rockhampton-Emerald-Blackwater. King Air aircraft operated the new service from Brisbane while former Coddair Queen Air and Baron aircraft operated the Rockhamton services. The arrangement with Corpair only lasted a short period and the shareholding was disposed of.

Freedman's connection with the company finished towards the end of 1985 and the current general manager, Mike Childs was appointed in early 1986.

His first task was to exam me the current situation and he concluded the company should concentrate on the area it knew best, the Pacific Islands.

The Toowoomba route was sold to Sabair and the Rockhampton routes were tranferred to a Gladstone based charter operation, Piccolo Airlines. Apart from the three King Airs, all the other aircraft were sold.

The aviation industry was surprised at the announcement in May 1986 of the airline's order for a Dash 8 aircraft. In the meantime, a fourth King Air VH-KNR was acquired and it has recently been completely overhauled and reregistered as VH-IBF, with a new Lord Howe Islands colour scheme.

The Norfolk Island Airlines group is administered in Brisbane and there is a small office complex at Eagle Farm Airport for the airlines operations, crewing and engineering.

On a recent visit to the airline, general manager Mike Childs, told Australia FLYING: "The company is broadening Its base by extending into other travel and tourist orientated areas. We purchased the Hillcrest Hotel on Norfolk Island over 12 months ago and in December, we purchased the modern South Pacific Hotel.

"This is the biggest and the best known hotel on the Island. Also in December, we purchased the Sydney based travel wholesaler, Pacific Unlimited who package tours to destinations throughout the Pacific region, not only to the islands we serve," he added.

The nightly freight service to Cairns meant the King Air normally remained static during the day but the company saw a need for an 'up market' charter service and in May 1986 established a new company, Norfolk Pacific to operate the Cairns base.

The aircraft is regularly chartered by the Papua New Guinea based OK Tedi Mine for executive and management flights between the mine site and Cairns.

Expansion of the Cairns base will follow growth in the local charter market. "Long term plans for Cairns could see new aircraft based there which wouldn't necessarily be suitable for our southern operations," Childs told us. Cairns is a small base with one King Air and a pilot/manager and a secretary.

The Brisbane headquarters have been overtaken by Sydney where high frequency flights are operated to Lord Howe Island, with some connections to Norfolk Island, and twice nightly freight flights to Melbourne on behalf of Wards and Australian Airlines. Two King Airs are based in Sydney, which accounts for about 60 per cent of flying hours.

Six pilots are Sydney based under senior base Captain John Balson. Balson handles all day-to-day matters; liaises between crews and head office; oversees maintenance by Hawker Pacific and handles any minor problems.

Pacific Aviation handle aircraft turn-arounds, such as reconfiguring aircraft from freight to passenger, providing passenger manifests and similar paperwork and the use of the Pacific owned Flight Facilities terminal at Mascot.

A single King Air is dedicated to the Brisbane headquarters and they also share the Cairns based aircraft. In addition an arrangement exists with Moore's Air Charter of Toowoomba to use their King Air VH-MKR. (this was once operated by Norfolk as VH-IBE). Five pilots are based here under chief pilot, Graham Syphers, the longest serving employee.

All Brisbane flights operate through the international terminal to clear customs. Turn-arounds are handled by Qantas who also prepare passenger manifests.

When posed with the question if the airline encountered any problems operating out of the terminal, Childs highlighted penalties such as paying Qantas for their services, some extra taxiing and the requirement which internal passengers to and from Lord Howe Island have to also pass through customs although they have been given a clearance at Lord Howe.

"We really don't mind using the international terminal as on all legs to and from Norfolk Island we can buy our fuel at duty free prices," Childs said.

The order for the Dash 8 aircraft has firmed up for delivery in September 1988. The $11.5m investment is a big step for a small company but according to Childs, one which the company can manage by careful planning.

Initial plans are for this aircraft to be based in Sydney to operate basically to Lord Howe and return. Occasionally a Sydney-Lord Howe-Norfolk Island-Lord Howe-Brisbane service will operate. The aircraft would then return to Sydney by the reverse route.

The company doesn't have its own engineering facility but its engineering manager, Carl Sommer, is based at Eagle Farm. Hawker Pacific do all maintenance in Sydney Brisbane and Cairns, with Sommer regularly overseeing their work. Major maintenance is always done in Brisbane.

Sydney based aircraft are rotated to Brisbane when necessary by operating through Lord Howe or by switching aircraft in Brisbane following weekly freight flight between the two cities.

Engines for the King Air aircraft were, until recently, sent to the manufacturers Canadian facility for overhaul. With the completion of the contract, a new agreement was negotiated with Hawker de Havilland in Sydney. "This new agreement is more advantageous for us; less freight costs; I can oversee their work and if warranty claims arise, these can be personally negotiated," Sommer told Australian FLYING.

The Pratt & Whitney engines are now authorised to 6000 hours. "Compared to most commuter and general aviation operators, we operate very long legs with less cycles and they are operated at the lower end of the cruise scale. Strict pilot discipline also contributes to the life of our engines," Sommer added.

A plan to bring each King Air aircraft's interior up to the same high standard as on VH-IBF is currently under way. This includes more comfortable seats with better leg room, colour coordination and the removal of toilets which weren't used.

A small buffet for refreshments is included. A problem for Norfolk is due to the freight work, the interiors are prone to damage.

The performance of the aircraft is also receiving attention. VH-IBF is being fitted with four-blade props and modified gear doors as a trial. "We are expecting better off the ground performance and cruise so this should warrant the cost," Sommer told us.

If successful, the other three aircraft will be modified. "There is a lot of flying left in these aircraft. New King Air 300 aircraft aren't suitable for us as they are two passengers heavier," Sommer added.

The arrival of the Dash 8 may not alter Norfolk's engineering arrangement according to Childs. "We have considered establishing our own engineering base in the past but it is a matter of cost. Even with the Dash 8, it would need to be cost effective to establish a base just for one of these aircraft. We are very pleased with Hawker Pacific and they have bases where we have aircraft based. "

Norfolk carry around 18,000 passengers a year. Further growth is restricted by accommodation availability on both islands.

"We are actively marketing twin island holidays which is gaining acceptance. This assists passenger figures between Norfolk and Lord Howe and by September 1987, we will be operating a daily service on this sector," Childs said.

Norfolk Airlines suffered what appeared to be a dramatic drop in passenger numbers when Air NSW commenced their Brisbane Norfolk Island jet service in July 1983. "The figures don't show the correct picture as nearly all Air NSW passengers are Norfolk Airlines passengers," said Childs.

The situation exists where Norfolk are the wholesalers of seats and tours for the Air NSW F28. This arrangement has actually increased substantially, the number of passengers handled by Norfolk on the route.

The airline has a long standing application to operate regular flights from Norfolk to Noumea and it is hoped bilateral talks between Australia and France will bring success to the application. This route will be aimed at New Zealanders by offering packaged twin island holidays in association with Air New Zealand.

The airline's interest in the Pacific region has recently been extended with the opening of new base at Port Moresby, trading as Niugini Pacific Aviation. The base will have a King Air available, offering a high standard charter service. However, this operation is still in its embryo stage.

All the King Air aircraft are extensively equipped with navigation aids, including Omega. Flying back and forward to the island is very routine and some pilots find it monotonous. However, the night freight flights are a diversion.

The weather can be the only problem when operating to the islands yet it is a rare occurrence if a successful landing cannot be made. However, at the time of our visit, an unusual weather pattern caused the Sydney Lord Howe flight to be diverted to Coffs Harbour and the Brisbane-Norfolk Island service to be diverted to Noumea.

Normally diversions are made to where it will be the most economical for the company, taking all costs into consideration such as flying time and fuel. Lord Howe flights usually use Norfolk while the Norfolk Island flights use Noumea.

The biggest problem operationally, is Sydney's Mascot Airport where long delays are common. As a result, the airline has to take on additional 'expensive' fuel at Lord Howe Island to cover a possible 45 minutes holding at Sydney for traffic reasons.

Norfolk Airlines claim to be the world's most experienced King Air operator. Each aircraft is operating up to 2700 hours annually. This is a staggering utilisation for a general aviation type aircraft.

Three of the current aircraft have now passed 20,000 hours. These aircraft have the distinction of having the highest hours of any King Air 200 aircraft in the world.

The new Port Moresby base hasn't brought any new King Air purchases. "The current fleet will have to work harder!" operations manager Randal McFarlane said. "We are making the best possible use of our current resources, both aircraft and crews. Our pilots also fly close to their maximum allowable hours." he added

Norfolk Airlines hasn't aligned itself with either of the major airlines but in August 1986, moved its reservations into Ansett's Ansamatic system. "We did consider moving our Sydney terminal to one of the airlines but because of tarmac space and other considerations, we didn't proceed," Childs told Australian FLYING.

Senior management believe the future of the company lies in the Pacific basin, "But we will look at any mainland proposal if we think we can make money out if it," Childs commented.

With this in mind, the group has recently purchased the Wards Express Learjet operation including the two aircraft VH-WFE and VH-WFJ, along with a three year freight contract with Wards. The operation has been renamed Norfolk Jet Aviation.

The previous arrangement of basing an aircraft in Sydney and Darwin to operate a return Sydney-Melbourne-Alice Springs-Darwin flight continues. "We will be looking at gaining better utilisation on these aircraft so we are looking at other work too, operations manager McFarlane said. "It is only the start for Norfolk Jet Aviation," he added.

Norfolk Airlines was a contender to take up some of the former Air Queensland routes in southern Queensland. However, it decided against such action after looking at passenger figures along with facing the prospect of competition from Sunstate Airlines.

To keep our options open, we did announce our intention to operate the Brisbane-Biloela-Blackwater-Emerald route, but after we studied it, we declined," McFarlane said.

"For us to operate a regular service on the mainland, it would need to have a guaranteed profit. There are too many corpses of commuter airlines scattered around the mainland for us - we don't want to add to them!" Childs added.

The fortunes of the company are in the hands of the Brisbane management team but all directors, led by local solicitor, John Brown, are all Norfolk Island residents.

Similarly, the company's Articles of Association state all shareholders must be island residents. This assures the company's future if past enthusiasm for 'their international airline' continues.