Vaccination flight to Tairāwhiti

A number of Wellington Aero Club members and six light aircraft were recently involved in an initiative to increase vaccination rates around Tairāwhiti (the East Cape area) north of Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa—Gisborne

The idea, conceived by Wellington Aero Club member Mahanga Muru and former WAC President Chris Hoffman, involved flying into some of the more isolated areas of Aotearoa–New Zealand. Each aircraft bore the names of Māori Battalion soldiers originally from the region, to pay respect to the regions tūpuna and to connect with the local community and descendants of whānau.

An image of the haka that members of the Māori Battalion performed for the King of Greece at Helwan, Egypt in June 1941 adorns the tail of each aircraft on the vaccination awareness drive. Cessna 185 ZK-CDY is in the foreground.

The 28th Māori Battalion consisted of 4 companies based on tribal regions and C company was formed by the six Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa—Gisborne and iwi of Tairāwhiti. Serving with distinction, the Māori Battalion were instrumental in the opening up of the Suez Canal for allied forces in World War 2.

The photograph that adorns the tail of the aircraft is a famous image taken when the battalion performed a haka for the King of Greece in Egypt in 1941. Within a week, 3 of the 4 soldiers pictured had been killed in action and the fourth was seriously wounded.

The flight line at Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa—Gisborne

The day started in Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa—Gisborne with regional briefings and airstrips we’d be landing at. Vital local knowledge was provided by pilot Andy Stevenson, who has about 40,000 hours. The Mayor of Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa—Gisborne Rehette Stoltz, MP Meka Whaitiri and various local trustees were ferried in the aircraft to meet the vaccination bus at each stop.

The first stop at Tologa Bay is a one-way agricultural airstrip with approximately 450 metres of the airstrip’s length marked — some fences had been moved to give greater length if it were needed. The strip isn't included on the AIP but Matt Day had kindly helped with imaging to assist with approach planning. On arrival it turned out that free blueberry picking was on at the same time nearby so the vaccination bus went to the location directly.

Wellington Aero Club’s ZK-FHQ at Ruatoria with Te Puni Kōkiri’s (Ministry for Māori Affairs) vaccination bus and the international terminal in the background

The Ruatoria International Aerodrome has recently had an upgrade of the clubhouse facilities and is the site of operation of Ruatoria Air run by Mahanga. The grass had been mowed recently and after a recent upgrade its is now back on the AIP (NZRR — pdf). Care has to be taken with westerly departures because of adjacent high ground particularly on hot days and the briefed departure involved a climbing turn towards nearby high ground to enable a safer turn back overhead adjacent to the field.

Ta Araroa is a 790 m grass strip with sea breezes right across the approach and high bluffs to the south east requiring a curved approach and a good cross-wind technique. A number of locals there who got vaccinated were taken flying and were quite thrilled. The East Cape is quite close and we did a low level scenic around the Cape and its golden beaches and lush farmland before heading back to Gisborne for a debrief over dinner.

Although not as many vaccinations were made as had been hoped, awareness was raised and many local people were moved finding the names of their relatives on the aircraft. There is real concern about the ability of the health system to cope once Covid-19 hits the Tairāwhiti region and so further flights are planned in the coming months.

The six aircraft and their pilots from Wellington Aero Club and further afield were;

  • Chris Hoffman in Cessna 207 ZK-DWX
  • Mahanga Muru in Cessna 207 ZK-FJH
  • Simon Holdsworth in Cessna Caravan ZK-EAV
  • Paul Grayson (Te Awamutu) in Cessna 185 ZK-CDY
  • Andy Stevenson (Gisborne) in Cessna 172A ZK-BWL
  • Charles Davis in Piper Archer ZK-FHQ

There’s video and more to read about about the Flying Doctor’s Vaccination drive to Tairāwhiti on 

More information about NZRR and Ruatoria Aero Club


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