Air force high-flier aims for top job

Air Vice-Marshall Graham Lintott.
Waikato Times
Air Vice-Marshall Graham Lintott.

It's hard to believe that a Golden Kiwi ticket kick- started the career of Air Vice- Marshal Graham Lintott. "I had 50 cents and I needed to turn it into at least a few hundred dollars to get the flying lessons I wanted so I bought a Golden Kiwi," he recalls.

His parents were less than impressed with the 15-year-old's money-making ideas.

"Dad called me a stupid little bugger and told me I should have put it in the bank and taken the 3 per cent interest.

"But I looked him in the eye and told him I would win."

And he did. Not the main prize, but a $700 windfall that saw his desire to fly take off.

Sitting in his large office in Wellington's Defence Headquarters, the boss of the Royal New Zealand Air Force couldn't be further from the remote landscape of Ruakiwi, northwest of Hamilton, where he grew up.

Air Vice-Marshal Lintott was born in Canterbury and moved with his parents and two sisters to the tiny Waikato settlement at the age of four so his father, Brian, could further his teaching career there as sole-charge teacher.

"It was Mum, Dad and the three kids in the Ford Prefect driving all the way to the Waikato. What a culture shock, but they were the best years of my life."

Parents Brian and Heather agree. "Town kids never got the opportunity to see lambs born or work with a flock of sheep - the kids loved it," Brian Lintott says.

He taught his children at Ruakiwi and later at Huinga School in Taranaki when the family moved. "I was careful not to treat the kids any differently to the other children. It's a dangerous situation - a teacher can over or under- compensate when they have their own children in class."

And while his sister, Denise, chose to refer to her father as "Sir" in class, young Graham happily referred to him as Dad.

"It was a great time, we were the best of friends, we fished and played with the rugby ball - we only had each other in those small rural communities," Brian says.

THE family left Huinga, moving back to Hamilton where the teenage Graham went to Hamilton Boys' High. "Graham was a really good student academically and a very caring boy with others," his father says.

There was, however, one brush with school authorities when he joined schoolmates in a playground "sit-in" protesting against wearing school caps and not being allowed long hair. "He came home and told us he was suspended and we actually found it quite funny.

"Graham was never aggressive and behaved himself. Even as a teenager, when other kids might have been experiencing with booze, he was never part of that."

The "small in stature" teenager affectionately known as Sprog was spending all his spare time and cash on flying lessons through the Waikato Aero Club.

He caught the flying bug early during a trial flight at the club under the Hamilton Boys' High liberal studies programme.

"They were 15-minute lessons once a week for four weeks; I was hooked," he says with a gleam in his eye.

Second prize in an aero club scholarship gave him a further 10 hours of flying but the money eventually ran out.

"I knew what I wanted. I was determined to become a commercial pilot for Air New Zealand. I just needed to work out how I was going to afford the rest of my pilot's licence."

He trained to fly under Waikato Aero Club instructor Harley Cook, who describes his young charge as a competent and dedicated pupil. He recalls the day that young Lintott sat his private pilot's test with Civil Aviation tester Bruce James. "If the Civil Aviation tester felt the student had not been prepared well enough they would come back and tear strips off the instructor for not doing the job properly," Mr Cook says.

So when Mr Cook was called into the pilots' briefing room by Mr James, after the test flight, he was deeply concerned.

"Bruce shut the door and said if Graham had been going for a commercial pilot's licence that day he would have passed he was so far above the level required."

A friend from school told him that the air force was one way to get pilot training for free and, at the age of 16, Graham Lintott was willing to try anything to follow his dream.

Thirty years later, and the neatly pressed uniform and highly polished shoes befit a man who is in control and in his element; the Air New Zealand dream tossed aside for a far greater goal.

Next April he plans to negotiate the final hurdle in his career - he hopes to take over as chief of defence from Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae. "I'm hoping to get the opportunity to compete, but I know I won't be the only one going for it."

But he clearly has the passion and determination to be a leading contender for the "big" role.

HIS parents are overwhelmed by how far their son has come. Mum Heather, who established the first Hamilton daycare centre incorporating early childhood education, recalls how he had time for everyone.

"He would let me know if he was ever flying over in an Iroquois and we would get the children outside with bright buckets and the staff would be running up and down with tea- towels and he would swoop across and circle the centre. The kids were so excited."

Air Vice-Marshal Lintott also has a supportive wife, Dianne, and three adult children backing his ultimate career goal.

"This is not a job you can drift in and out of. Being a frigate commander or an air force squadron commander is not the same as working for Mainfreight trucking or even Air New Zealand."

The job has taken Air Vice- Marshal Lintott, 55, to every corner of the globe. He spent time in Singapore when the air force was called in to support New Zealand's infantry battalion and he has headed humanitarian missions in the Sinai Peninsula, Rwanda and Zaire, where he saw first-hand the "horrible environment" of civil war in central Africa.

"That was when the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis and hundreds and thousands of people were killed. Our job was to bring in humanitarian aid."

During that time he was mission commander based in Uganda, where his team spent two months flying aid into the war- torn region.

"More recently I've been in Afghanistan and that makes me think about the situation more, as I am now directing and ordering our people to go there and work in dangerous situations."

As a pilot, Air Vice-Marshal Lintott has flown all types of aircraft, including two years with the Red Checkers, the air force aerobatic precision-flying team.

But now flying has become another casualty in his life. As air vice-marshal he has precious little time to sit in a cockpit.

He describes the Defence Force as one big family. "You go to war and you rely and trust each other, you have to have the next person's back."

And while the three forces combine as one family, he says it is important that each retains its identity. "Think of the money we could save having a uniform cut from the one cloth, but those uniforms provide each arm with individuality.

"The air force can cross two continents in one day whereas the army might move two miles in one day. It's about executing different styles in different environments."

The Defence Force culture has been tested many times in the past year.

On Anzac Day, as he received news that three of his air force family had been killed when a Iroquois helicopter, on its way from Ohakea airbase to Anzac Day services in Wellington, crashed on hills above State Highway 1 near Pukerua Bay.

The emotion is still raw for Air Vice-Marshal Lintott as he recalls the devastating loss of life.

"I just respect those young men who chose to serve their country. We all grieved as one on that day."

As they did when Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, 28, was killed when his three-vehicle patrol was attacked with explosives, rocket propelled grenades and gunfire in northeast Afghanistan in August.

THE outpouring of national grief for the Kiwi soldier killed in battle was described by Air Vice-Marshal Lintott as "right for that time".

"That was New Zealand saying we do respect our people serving our country and we do want to have a Defence Force and to be a creditable contributor to the international community," he says.

And he is proud to report that the air force's capacity to contribute on an international scale is about to expand further.

The current stock of 1950s Sioux and 1960s Vietnam-era Iroquois helicopters are about to be replaced by a new breed of aircraft.

Next year will herald the arrival of eight NH90s and five Agusta 109 helicopters, with a combined price tag of more than $900 million.

NH90s are an advanced medium utility helicopter incorporating sustainable technologies ensuring greater compatibility with security partners. They can carry up to 12 fully equipped soldiers or up to 19 lightly equipped passengers and lift an army Light Operational Vehicle.

The Agusta 109 is a lightweight, twin-engine, eight-seat, multi- purpose helicopter.

Air Vice-Marshal Lintott says the new aircraft will bring a "complete change of culture" to how the air force operates. "They will also require construction of a purpose- built hangar which is already under way at Ohakea - the largest Defence Force construction undertaken since World War II."

HE IS thrilled that the new aircraft will arrive under his tenure, a role he took over in 2006 from his brother-in-law John Hamilton, who is now the director of civil defence, based in Wellington.

The pair rose through the air force ranks together and Mr Hamilton admits there have been some interesting discussions in recent years since he handed on his air vice-marshal title to his brother- in-law. "Graham has a different style to me, and I guess the situation is different from my time, but I can certainly say he has been a very effective leader," he says.

If Air Vice-Marshal Lintott is successful in his quest to become the chief of defence next year, he says he will continue to strive for high-level resourcing of the New Zealand forces.

"That's what I'm about. Giving our troops the best equipment we can and knowing that our training is excellent."

So what keeps the RNZAF boss awake at night? "If I was to keep awake at night it would be because I had committed troops to do something that I felt we had not adequately prepared them for - that would mean breaking the moral contract we have with our personnel."

He has not had to lose any sleep for this reason, but he now knows how his parents felt when he approached them about joining the air force in 1973.

"I had to debate long and hard with my parents.

"They weren't keen but I needed their approval. I didn't really think about the fact they were signing me up to go to war when they signed that attestation form," he says.

Brian Lintott says: "I thought if he wanted to fly he should go and find a topdressing plane - not go to war - but look at him now.

"Words can't describe how proud we are."

Waikato Times