Chopper pilot 'legend' lifts off into retirement

23:00, Apr 04 2014
jim wilson
FAREWELL TRIBUTE: HNZ chief pilot Jim Wilson is farewelled by staff at Nelson Airport

Helicopter industry doyen Jim Wilson has farewelled a job that gave him a lifetime of sunrise and sunsets and extraordinary visual beauty.

Friends and colleagues of HNZ Group, formerly Helicopters NZ, in Nelson bade him a tearful goodbye yesterday as he stepped aside from a 38-year career with the company and a 55-year career in aviation which has been recognised internationally.

The 72-year-old, who has been HNZ chief pilot for 36 years, was lauded for his ability to adapt to the huge changes in aviation over the last half century.

HNZ New Zealand managing director Denis Laird said Wilson had "mentored, trained, hired and fired" most of the helicopter pilots in the industry.

He was an "Antarctic legend" who had spent 17 seasons on the southern ice and had planned, trained and supervised Antarctic support programmes for German, Italian, Norwegian, Japanese and American clients since 1979.

In 2012 he was presented with the London-based Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators master's award for the New Zealand region, in recognition of his leadership and influence on international standards for helicopter operations in the most extreme conditions, and the credit that brought the New Zealand aviation industry.


Wilson's career began with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1959 when he started as an aircraft engine fitter. He learned to fly in a Tiger Moth and an Auster, and by 1965 had gained his instructor rating. He became hooked on helicopters after a career change in 1967 when he joined the former Alexander Helicopters in Whanganui.

Wilson joined the late John Reid at Helicopters New Zealand as a line pilot in 1975 and became chief pilot in 1978, after a six- month season in the Canadian Arctic. The backdrop to yesterday's farewell ceremony was a 1962 Bell 47J chopper Wilson flew earlier in his career, and which was now a museum exhibit. "I think that's a clear message for me," he joked.

Laird said there was no-one like Wilson capable of such diversity.

"He's gone from having a flight manual in the cockpit to fully integrated management systems." Laird said it was also commendable that Wilson had "never bent a chopper through his own fault", but he had not brought them all back.

Wilson said the most memorable of his "close calls" was the time he ditched his helicopter in Cook Strait.

The engine on the Hughes 500 he was flying from Masterton to Blenheim failed above Cloudy Bay, and he went into the drink.

"There was a Friendship [former NAC aircraft] behind me who heard my mayday call and relayed it, but I was in the water for 45 minutes before I was picked up."

Nelson-based HNZ Group executive vice-president international Keith Mullett described Wilson as a "very special man" whose legacy was the extent of his influence on the industry.

Laird added in his heartfelt speech that the pillars of Wilson's career were longevity, loyalty and love. He also credited Wilson's wife of 32 years, Lesley Wilson, for her understanding of a challenging job that one year had him away from home for 200 days.

"There have been some dark times in this company in the past, and it was only Jim who stood between the company surviving or failing.

"For him it has always been about the company and serving our customers."

Laird also said passion was not a strong enough word to describe Wilson's allegiance to the industry.

"Aviators have a passion for aviation, but the word is irrational. Love is about true understanding and Jim loved aviation."

He said that while no-one was indispensable, Wilson was irreplaceable.

Wilson said he was now looking forward to time at home, and he might even tackle the Otago Rail Trail on his bike.

"I always thought you retired when you got old, but it drops on you unannounced. It's very much an issue we all have to deal with."

He said the great thing about his job as chief pilot was giving young pilots the chance to get ahead, and they in turn had kept him young at heart.

He paid special tribute to his assistant of 29 years, Esther Dyson, who could "type up what he was thinking" without him saying a word.

"I will always cherish the great memories at HNZ and the people in it."

The Nelson Mail