Wed, Feb 21, 2024 8:00 AM

Cargo, cake and candles


William Woodworth

A special plane has been given a spruce-up in time for her birthday next month.

At almost 59 years old, the Argosy looks good for her age.

And as she prepares to mark her birthday on 10 March, it seemed only right she be given a bit of a makeover by Marlborough Water Blasting.

Argosy Trust chairman Paul Davidson, and pilot Allan Graham who took the Merchant Enterprisefor her last flight, are now preparing to celebrate her first flight on the 10th of March 1965.

“This plane has so much local history and international aviation significance, as it’s the last one of its kind remaining in the world”, says Paul.

“I think my most prized, and my saddest, memory was taking the Argosy for her final flight”, says Allan Graham, who crewed the final flight in 1990 alongside Ian Pirie.

“When we left Wellington, we departed through a tunnel of sprayed water from the fire trucks which was simply spectacular but really gut-wrenching, and all of the feeling hit us when we powered her down for the last time.”

Argosy Trust chairman Paul Davidson, and pilot Allan Graham are preparing to celebrate a special birthday. Photo: William Woodworth.

The famed Argosy at the Runway Café stands watch over planes leaving and arriving Marlborough Airport, just as it used to do.

The Armstrong Whitworth AW.660 Argosy ZK-SAE ‘Merchant Enterprise’ carried cargo to and from Blenheim to Wellington and Christchurch up and down New Zealand.

It also made passenger flights to the Chatham Islands under the SAFE Air banner from 1974 until the end of flying in 1990.

Paul, whose involvement with the Argosy started after making the documentary The Final Flight telling the Safe Air story, later purchased the plane, which was also involved in the famous 1978 Kaikoura UFO encounters.

However, the Argosy’s fate was up in the air, as it almost followed in the wheel tracks of its sister plane – whose cut up fuselage remains in a paddock across the highway.

“Everyone expected the planes would be sold off in 1990, but Safe Air General Manager Graeme Gilmour told us it was being cut up as Air New Zealand didn’t want competition,” Paul explains.

“I rushed down there and offered to would buy the plane as is where is for whatever they would get for the scrap metal. If it wasn’t for that, she wouldn’t be here.

“We popped over the next day, wrote the cheque and towed her to a field for eight years until we had an idea for what to do with her.

“There was no logic behind it, it just felt right.”

The Argosy sits at the Runway Cafe in Woodbourne, watching planes take off and land like she used to do. Photo: William Woodworth

After organising the refit and getting a fresh coat of SAFE Air paint, the Argosy’s final voyage was a quick jaunt down State Highway 6 to where she is today.

However, Paul and Allan still have high hopes for SAFE’s Marlborough’s aviation history.

“We’re already in conversation with our friends at Omaka to add their Bristol and create a local aviation museum,

They agree the Argosy and the Bristol aircraft are the last visible signs that SAFE Air ever existed, and it would be wonderful to one day have them back together again.

“I’m hoping that long after we are gone, we leave a visual legacy of a once thriving aviation business because Marlborough has such a deep relationship with aviation,” Paul says.

The Argosy is open daily for visitors at the Runway Café in Woodbourne.

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