Flight master

Last updated 05:00 23/03/2014

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Forty-five minutes in the air each week keeps John Sandilands' flying skills up to scratch.

The Blenheim man turns 88 this month but he intends to renew his license so he can keep flying light aircraft when his current one expires in June this year.

"It's a challenge; I'm 88, but I don't pay any attention to how old I am.

"I'm just me and me does what he wants to."

John is speaking after his weekly Wednesday morning flight from the Omaka Aerodrome. The low-wing sports aircraft he normally flies wasn't available, so he climbed into a Cessna 172 "tail-dragger".

John's licence doesn't permit him to fly it on his own. But he knows what to do, so it was more of a joyride for the instructor who had to sit in the cockpit beside him.

"It was a challenge ... I have to really concentrate because landing a tail-dragger is totally different to landing a normal plane. But I like a challenge."

John, known as "Sandi" by Marlborough Aero Club buddies, is a volunteer guide at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. As a World War II veteran, he can give visitors some firsthand reports about the courage and skills that kept World War I and World War II planes in the air.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, John signed up with the Royal Air Force in 1942, altering the date on his handwritten birth certificate to make it look like he was old enough.

"I'm 88 this month but according to the RAF I would be 90," he chuckles.

"It's what you did in those days.

"Everything was disrupted, schools were closed half the time so you would turn up to school and there were no teachers there."

He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserves as an aircraft technician, working on navigation systems, automatic-pilot and bomb site computers. Computers back then were large analogue machines in large boxes with gears that were operating all the time.

World War II ended in Europe in May 1945 and John was sent to Norway to help communities there recover from three or four years' German occupation and looting.

Back in Britain, John signed up for another four years with the RAF, serving in Egypt and southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) before returning to Britain at Christmas 1948.

Visiting London one day, he was walking along The Strand and noticed a brass plaque at the bottom of a stairwell.

"RNZAF London," it read, and an arrow indicated its office was up one flight of stairs.

John walked up them and put his name down as a potential recruit with advanced automatic-pilot adjustment skills.

On March 10, 1950, John arrived at the RNZAF base at Ohakea. It was there he met his future wife Anna, a Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) member who worked in the pay accounts. John stayed in the RNZAF for 22 years, working his way up to warrant officer and moving from its base at Ohakea to Woodbourne, the Taieri and then Singapore.

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After that John, Anna and their daughter went to Britain but cut-short their planned two-year stay after eight months.

"We couldn't stand it."

Back in New Zealand they ran a guest house in the Bay of Islands, then John got a job with the Inland Revenue.

They moved to Blenheim in 1980 and John, a widower now, says their daughter also lives in Marlborough.

"She's a clever girl, too; she has my head for figures and her mother's flair for organisation. I get rung up and told off quite often."

- The Marlborough Express

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