HNZ to open $1m flight school

READY FOR TAKEOFF: Prime Minister John Key in the pilot’s seat of a HNZ helicopter at Nelson Airport with instructor Dave Sowman and president and CEO of HNZ Group  Don Wall, background.
READY FOR TAKEOFF: Prime Minister John Key in the pilot’s seat of a HNZ helicopter at Nelson Airport with instructor Dave Sowman and president and CEO of HNZ Group Don Wall, background.

Global helicopter firm HNZ is investing $1 million in setting up what will be an internationally recognised advanced pilot training school in Nelson.

The announcement was made this morning by the company's international board at the HNZ Group Nelson headquarters before a delegation that included Prime Minister John Key and Canadian high commissioner Caroline Chretien.

The Nelson school, to be set up at the HNZ base at Nelson Airport, will be HNZ's second Topflight School in the world. It would work in partnership with its sister school in Canada and would be the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, said Nelson-based HNZ Group executive vice president international Keith Mullett.

HNZ Group chief executive Don Wall said the company was committed to growing its New Zealand operations, and as part of that commitment it would establish the school in Nelson by the end of this year.

HNZ, which has strong historic links to Nelson, was bought last year by Canada's largest domestic helicopter operator. The Canadian parent company then took on the HNZ name this year.

Mr Mullett said the Nelson school would see an initial $1m investment, which was expected to increase in coming years.

He said Nelson was a great location for advanced helicopter training, and a school here was expected to attract a lot of interest from overseas pilots.

"The local ranges are ideal for pilots to learn about the mechanics of mountain winds, and to practise advanced flying techniques."

The move has been welcomed by Nelson MP Nick Smith, who attended the announcement.

"HNZ is such an important business for Nelson. It is a high-paying employer of skilled pilots and engineers that enhances our reputation as a centre of excellence in aviation," Dr Smith said.

The industry already employed more than 500 people in the region.

"This announcement is so encouraging after the difficulties for the former Helicopters NZ with the collapse of its owner, South Canterbury Finance, in 2009," Dr Smith said.

The $154m sale last year to the Canadian firm was the first major asset sale after SCF went into receivership. Almost $2 billion was paid to SCF investors in a Government bailout.

Dr Smith said the challenge for the Government as receiver was to secure the best possible price for taxpayers while also finding a new owner committed to growing the successful Nelson business.

He said trade internationally was increasingly in services rather than goods, and HNZ was now Nelson's largest foreign exchange earner for services.

In August, HNZ Group won a US$40m (NZ$49.3m) contract to provide offshore helicopter services to Shell in the Philippines.

The company's growth strategy would see a minimum of $35m worth of investment come into New Zealand over the next 18 months, which was in line with a forecast for the New Zealand aviation industry to reach as much as US$16b by 2016 - a growth rate of 9 per cent annually, HNZ said.

Mr Key said at today's announcement HNZ was a critical business for Nelson, and the capital investment in the flight training school and pilots it would attract would have wider spin-offs for the local economy. He said it was significant that representatives of HNZ's Asian partners were in Nelson for today's announcement, because of the huge economic expansion planned in Asia from New Zealand.

Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency chief executive Bill Findlater said the flight training school would serve to boost HNZ's local profile.

Nelson deputy mayor Ali Boswijk said HNZ had proved it was possible to have global companies based in a place like Nelson.