Chopper pilot recalls adventures

SEIZE THE MOMENT: Rod Hall-Jones lands his Hughes 300 onto the Calypso.
SEIZE THE MOMENT: Rod Hall-Jones lands his Hughes 300 onto the Calypso.

Te Anau-based helicopter pilot Rod Hall-Jones has had his commercial wings clipped. After 48 years in the air, Hall-Jones shares his life of adventure up in the clouds and on the high seas with Neil Ratley.

Rod Hall-Jones can't quite remember if Madame Cousteau granted permission for the crew of the Calypso to go ashore.

But he does recall the men returning to the ship disappointed after an encounter with a pious bordello owner in Indonesia.

SPECIAL MEMENTO: Te Anau-based helicopter pilot Rod Hall-Jones still has his red woolly hat earned  from  his time as a crew member on the Calypso, the flagship of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Hall-Jones spent seven years flying for the Cousteau Society.
SPECIAL MEMENTO: Te Anau-based helicopter pilot Rod Hall-Jones still has his red woolly hat earned  from his time as a crew member on the Calypso, the flagship of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Hall-Jones spent seven years flying for the Cousteau Society.

"We could be at sea up to four months at a time. There was a bit of cabin fever," he says.

Relief for the crew of the Calypso often came from shore leave. Both granted and clandestine when Madame Cousteau felt the men should stay on board.

A mission to Komodo Island in Indonesian waters provided both a curse and a blessing for the men in the famous Cousteau Society woolly red hats.

"After being at sea, certain things in life become important. The first thing you want is a beer and then a woman. The men turned up at the bordello but found it closed. It was baffling because bordellos are never closed. I was told they knocked on the door and finally the madam came out. She said 'we closed, go away' and slammed the door.

"That was strange. They knocked again and she came back and said 'I told you to go away we are closed'. Asked why, she said 'don't you know the pope is coming tomorrow'. It appeared the girls had to be virtuous for the night," Hall-Jones says.

The men may have missed out on a kiss from the girls but they did get a blessing from the pope.

Rod Hall-Jones sailed, flew and ate his way through 23 countries as a crew member of the Cousteau team.

Among the regions of the world he visited were Asia, Polynesia, Australia and Europe.

It was a mystery phone call - he believed was a joke from friends - that landed the Southlander on the deck of the Calypso and began a life aquatic from the air.

Hall-Jones' job was to fly the ship's helicopter for aerial filming.

"An American by the name of Bob Broombeck called me up and said he was working for Jacques Cousteau and asked if I wanted to fly the ship's helicopter," Hall-Jones says.

"When I found out it wasn't a joke, I packed my bags straight away."

Exactly how the American knew who he was is still a mystery, he says.

From 1986, Hall-Jones spent seven years sailing on and flying from the Calypso and Alcyone for the Cousteau Society.

But it took five years to finally be bestowed with his red woolly hat.

"I suppose they wanted me to really earn it. I really wanted one. Everyone on board had one," the pilot jokes.

The woolly red hat is the crowning glory to being a part of legendary underwater explorer and film-maker Jacques Cousteau's team.

It was an adventure that he fondly remembers during a 48-year flying career and he still has the hat.

"While Cousteau's films were mostly about life under the world's oceans and rivers, the aerial shots gave viewers a wider picture of where in the world we were," Hall-Jones explains.

Life on the Calypso - leased for the princely sum of 1 franc a year from its owner - lacked some of the creature comforts of home but the food was first class.

It appears Hall-Jones can almost taste the food as he describes the fare on board.

Meals could include seven courses and were served up by a former top chef on a cruise liner who was cast adrift after enjoying the easy access to the liner's liquor supplies. The chef was also susceptible to bouts of sea sickness but that didn't stop the food from coming, Hall-Jones says.

"I never remember a Sunday where we never had caviar and croutons. There was also plenty of French wine to go with the food."

His life working for Cousteau has provided a lifetime of tall tales and sea shanties.

There was the unpleasant experience of floating and flying around Mururoa when "nuclear bombs were being detonated".

"I couldn't get out of there quick enough," he says.

An order from the Cousteau Society to make his way to Bratislavia from France also posed a challenge.

"I'd never heard of Bratislavia."

He also found himself staring into the barrel of a gun in former Yugoslavia during a time of war.

"It was an exciting life, and you never knew where you were going next."

"Even when I was a Kiwi amongst the French at the time of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, we all got along and on with the job."

Hall-Jones survived his adventures and, after seven years, he decided it was time to take off the red hat and come home.

He left with a great respect and admiration for Cousteau.

"He was a great man and at the time more well known than the French president," Hall-Jones says.

"He made people aware what was in the oceans and that we need to look after them."

While it was a "bolt out of the blue" that propelled Hall-Jones towards a career with the Cousteau Society, a life in the air was something he knew he wanted after his first time off the ground.

"I was 17 years old when a school friend's father took me up in his Auster plane. I was hooked and began taking $6.50 an hour lessons at the Southland Aero Club."

After eventually securing his fixed- wing flying instructor's ticket further up country, a job came up at the Southern Districts Aero Club, now Gore Aero Club, and Hall-Jones returned to take up the post.

A maiden flight in a helicopter at the club changed Hall-Jones' life forever.

"It was wonderful. You could sit and hover, move around so easily and didn't need any space to land. I loved everything about the experience," he says, smiling.

In the late 70s, Hall-Jones bit the bullet and paid up for the 50 hours of flying needed to get a helicopter pilot's licence.

Three weeks later, he was looking for work and persuaded Fred Andrews, of Argyle Station, who had an old Enstrom helicopter, that he should be using the helicopter and the newly qualified pilot was just the man for the job.

Farm work and live deer capture where low flying and a steady hand were needed to drop a shooter onto a deer's back in remote country filled in the days.

The skills honed by hundreds of hours of flying enabled Hall-Jones to get his instructor rating and teach others to fly helicopters before the Calypso sailed into Doubtful Sound and his life.

For the past two decades, Hall-Jones has worked for Southern Lakes Helicopters and "Sir Richard".

Unfortunately, a recent medical report has clipped the passionate pilot's wings and his time as a commercial flier has come to an end.

But flying will always be in Hall-Jones' blood and he keeps involved by helping out "as the office girl" at Southern Lakes. He can also still fly himself.

"I am lucky. I've got to fly for 48 years and have so far walked away. Many close friends and associates didn't."

Even seven engine failures failed to stall his flying career.

"It's luck where you are when that engine fails. If you have a bit of flat ground most pilots could pull off a landing," Hall-Jones says humbly.

"Fiordland is one of the most demanding places to fly in because of its remoteness and weather. I've seen whole valleys cloud in minutes. But thankfully, I've made it home and never had to spend a night out in the cold."

Sipping on a cup of hot coffee in his Te Anau kitchen, Hall-Jones says his exotic adventures were wonderful but they only served to reinforce how special Fiordland is.

"I probably have more of an appreciation for this place than most because I have travelled to some far away places. There are some beautiful places out there but nothing to match Fiordland and its wilderness. And it's just magic getting to see it from up high."

The Southland Times