Allan Graham still living the high life

ANGELA CROMPTON
Last updated 05:00 12/07/2014
Allan Graham
SCOTT HAMMOND/Fairfax NZ

MEMORIES: Allan Graham tries out his old pilot’s seat in the now-grounded Safe Air Argosy on public display at Woodbourne.

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Allan Graham celebrated a 50-year career in the air last week by taking his wife on a scenic flight over the Marlborough Sounds.

The anniversary marked exactly 50 years since Allan hopped on his first flight. He loved it so much, he gave up his job in Te Anau as a builder to pursue a job in aviation.

''I realised aviation was what I wanted to do. I asked [wife] Jan whether she minded and she said: 'as long as you don't go top-dressing'.''

Allan, sharing his story at the couple's Blenheim home this week, grins.

He obeyed Jan's wish and never flew a top-dressing plane.

But he did fly between mountains, counting cattle on Molesworth Station. And then there was the deer meat recovery work.

In 1965, Jan and Allan moved to Marlborough where he became chief flying instructor at the Marlborough Aero Club. Clubs were often hired to carry produce around the country so Allan used one of Marlborough's small Piper Cub planes to recover wild venison.

Deer shot from helicopters would be dropped near a quiet rural road where Allan would land the plane.

Seven carcasses could be jammed on to the Piper Cub, he says. Five inside, their legs straddled around the pilot's seat; two more outside, attached to special racks below the wings.  Allan left the aero club in 1970 for a job at Safe Air, flying cargo and passenger Bristol Freighters then Argosy planes around New Zealand and to the Chatham Islands.

The islands' original, unsealed airstrip at Hapupu ntsTntewas on spongy peat bog consolidated with a covering of limestone, Allan says.

When coming in to land, the plane often had to be inclined to counteract a strong, sideways wind, then realigned when it descended below some shelter belt trees.

It took a Bristol Freighter 7sfr1/2 hours to fly a return trip to the Chathams.

The Argosy which replaced it was faster but in the late 1970s some mystery lights were reportedly ''chasing'' the plane.

An Australian film crew documented the lights in a film that can be viewed on the last Argosy, on public display beside the Argosy Restaurant Bar and Cafe ntsGon Middle Renwick Rd ntein Woodbourne. Allan didn't fly the plane for the documentary but he did witness the unexplained lights. ntsGnear the aircraft.nte ''No-one will ever say what it was. Maybe someone does know but is not saying... it's all conjecture.''

The flying branch of Safe Air wound up on September 30, 1990, after Alan and fellow captain Ian Pirie flew the Argosy on its final flight from Wellington to Woodbourne.

It was an emotional journey, Allan remembers, and fire engines had positioned themselves on each side of the Wellington runway, squirting water from their hoses in a guard of honour.

Allan's next job was with Air Nelson, flying its 38-seater Saab 340, but he says Blenheim remained his home base. Jan calls from the kitchen: ''You burned a bit of rubber on the Whangamoa,'' a reference to the mountainous road pass between Blenheim and Nelson.

The Grahams owned an orchard at Rapaura and after a couple of years commuting to Nelson, Allan decided to start his own air charter service.

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He built a small air strip on his property, bought a Piper Cub and flew the first Straits AirntsTnte passengers in 1994. As his customer base grew, he bought a second aircraft, a Piper Arrow, hired the old Safe Air building at Woodbourne and became one of the first tenants in the new Blenheim passenger terminal.

Straits Air flew for four years under Allan's command. As well as taking charter flights, he offered training to prospective professional pilots and provided air ambulance services around New Zealand. He was also an Aviation Services examiner, a role he continued after retiring in 2006.

It was a temporary retirement, he adds, because in 2012 he agreed to captain a Life Flight Trust plane for Vincent Aviation, flying in conjunction with the Westpac helicopter service.ntsGfrom Wellingtonnte The 72-year-old pilot had to undergo some rigorous tests to pass the class-one medical, and the financial and emotional strain of doing so made him decide against renewing his licence last year.

These days he holds a recreational pilot's licence.

With 25,000 flying hours recorded on his log book, he just needs to do three takeoffs and ntsGthreente landings every 90 days to retain it. And, like every pilot, he has to pass a biannual flight review (BFA).

''You do it with a flight examiner - to make sure you haven't gone doo-dah.'' 

- The Marlborough Express

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