Pioneering Aviator

Wednesday 11 January 2017

This long leather flying coat was worn by Mt Cook Airlines founder, Rodolph (‘Wigs’) Wigley, with a fur-lined flying helmet to keep warm in unheated aircraft.

2011.67.11 CoatRodolph ‘Wigs’ Wigley (second left ) was one of those pioneering Kiwis who seemed able to turn his hand to anything. He has since been dubbed the father of tourism in New Zealand. 

Born in 1881, he was educated at Christ’s College, studied Electrical Engineering through a Philadelphia correspondence school and then started on a career based around transportation and tourism. After investing in Timaru’s first Stanley steam car, he bought a two-seater De Dion Bouton which he then used to make the first ever automobile journey to the Hermitage at Mt Cook. As a result, he saw the tourism potential and set up the Mt Cook Motor Service, transporting tourists and mail in and out of the region. He bought the Hermitage and invested in new facilities: electricity, a telegraph line and tramping huts. Along with two of his mountain guides, he made the first winter ascent of Mt Cook in 1923.

After developing further into tourism with more transport routes, hotels and New Zealand’s first rental car business, he turned his attention to the skies and created the New Zealand Aero Transport Company in 1920. The company used surplus World War One aircraft and was the first in the country to transport passengers and freight.

While he did not get his own pilot’s licence until he was 55 years old, he was a passenger on many pioneering flights, including the first flight from Invercargill to Auckland, piloted by James Cuthbert "Bert" Mercer Mercer in 1921. Eventually the company morphed into Mt Cook Airlines which is now part of Air New Zealand.

See more about Canterbury's pioneering aviators in Air New Zealand 75 Years.

Images: Banner: Rodolph Wigley with two pilots and an unidentified woman 1920s 1982.163.1325; Coat: 2011.67.11