The last of the four Solent 4s ordered by TEAL was c/n SH.1559 which, after completion by Shorts at Belfast, became ZK-AMO in early November 1949 and was named 'Aranui'.
The aircraft arrived at Auckland on 30Nov1949, and carried out its first commercial Auckland-Sydney service on the 19th December commanded by Captain D.W. Keesing.ZK-AMO moored at Mechnics Bay soon after arrival, with the NZNAC Sunderland III ZK-AMK visible further outZK-AMO, still showing the Union Jack on the fin, taxiing out from departure from Mechanics BayUndergoing servicing on the hard at Mechanics Bay. Note the TEAL hangar under construction at that time.
By 1951, NZNAC had extended its Sunderland III Pacific Service from Fiji to Aitutaki, Cook Islands at the same time as an Air Tahiti service linked French Polynesia with Nandi. These regional services connected with the BCPA Pacific route from Auckland to Vancouver. With the arrival of the Solents and the immenant withdrawal of the Sunderlands, these routes were to be handed over to TEAL and the service extended to Tahiti.
At that time, the Tahitian capital of Papeete did not possess a land airport. All international flights to the city had to land at the ex-US base at Bora Bora and then transfer by Catalina flying boats to travel to the city.The airport at Bora Bora. Even today, to leave the airport without travelling by air you must take the boat!The modern airport at Fa'aa, Papeete. The flying boat services terminated here prior to the runway construction
Thus to prepare for the proposed service, TEAL employed the Boeing PB2B-1 Catalina ZK-AMP as a survey aircraft.
The route was devloped over time, and became famous as The Coral Route. Travel times were long: Auckland - (7.30hrs) - Suva, Fiji - (3.45hrs) - Apia, Samoa - (5.00hrs) - Aitutaki, Cook Islands - (4.05hrs) - Papeete,Tahiti.
Over night stops were at Suva and Apia, then the flight left Samoa well before daylight to arrive in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands early in the morning. Aitutaki was intended just as a refuelling stop, and the passengers would leave the aircraft for just a few hours before reboarding for Tahiti.
Aitutaki is around 40 minutes flying time from Rarotonga, and already possessed a sizeable wartime airfield. The logisics of the service meant that all fuel and food had to be shipped to Rarotonga, on to Aitutaki and then out over the lagoon to the islet Motu Akaiami which at that time was uninhabited.
A stone jetty was built on Motu Akaiami so that passengers and supplies could be transferred out to the Solent, and a small building constructed to give the passengers shelter.
Aerial view of Aitutaki, the airfiled is located at the top right of the island and the flying boat area arrowed.
Map of Aitutaki showing the location of the TEAL depot and alighting areas
View of the remains of the stone jetty as seen in 2004
At high tide, thats me trying not to get my feet wet on the jetty
After the Catalina had set up the route, Solent III ZK-AMQ captained by J.R. McGrane and P.F. Le Couteur left Auckland on 28Nov1951 for Tahiti via Suva-Aitutaki on a proving flight. It returned to Auckland on 8 December. Following this flight, ZK-AMQ "Aparima" (Captain J.R. McGrane) carried out the first commercial service on the Coral Route departing Auckland on the 27th December. The return service commenced on 31 December and returned to Auckland on 4 January, 1952.
Initially the service operated on a monthly basis, but by May 1952 had increased to once every two weeks.ZK-AMO in later TEAL colours moored at Aitutaki
Part of a documentry made about the Coral Route, with a slightly inaccurate commentaryhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2E_uzVv7hTg
By 1954 the Solents were being replaced on most TEAL services by land-based aircraft. However, the Coral Route was maintained by ZK-AMO with Solent 3 ZK-AMQ initialy used as a reserve aircraft, later Australian Sandringhams were hired to cover for maintenance.ZK-AMO moored at the Mechanics Bay buoy
The end finally came in 1960, the service having become quite uneconomic.ZK-AMO departing Lauthala Bay, Fiji, on the final service back to Auckland 14Sep1960, Captain J Shephard.
Once back in Auckland, ZK-AMO was decomissioned and taken to storage at Hobsonville. I do not know who was responsible for the decision to retain the aircraft as a museum piece, but that was certainly a far-sighted move. The Museum of Transport and Technology was still in the formative stages at that time, but the aircraft was held at Hobsonville until they were ready to accept it.ZK-AMO in storage at Hobsonville 1961Lined up with three redundant RNZAF Sunderlands at Hobsonville 1964
Finally, in May 1966 the Solent was returned to the water and towed down the harbour to be dragged back up on land at the new Meola Road site for MoTAT. The engines and rudder were removed for this shift.
Neville Mines was involved with MoTAT at this time, and has kindly supplied photos of the arrival at the museum
The engines were brought down from Hobsonville to Western Springs by truck, and re-installed after the move had been completed
Reassembled at the MoTAT site, ZK-AMO appeared in sound condition in the late 1960s.
However, 23 years of exposure to the elements took there toll, and serious work had to wait until a new hangar was built and ZK-AMO was finally moved inside in 1989.
At this time, external and inernal remedial work took place over many years, and when completed the Solent presented an impressive sight. Access stairs allowed for viewing of the interior.
As the MoTAT aircraft collection expanded, and funding was raised for a larger hangar extension. This entailed ZK-AMO being taken back outside while the new building work is underway during 2010-2011
When the new building has been completed in late 2011, both ZK-AMO and the Sunderland NZ4115 will be able to be protected from the elements and preserved for all to admire.Next: ZK-AMQ