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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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!"
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
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.