A legendary pilot

Queenstown pilot Alfie Speight, where he is happiest, in the air.
Queenstown pilot Alfie Speight, where he is happiest, in the air.

Skilled Queenstown aerial filming helicopter pilot Alfie Speight is arguably the country's best. Legendary not only in the south, Speight regularly has Hollywood greats in his helicopter but you won't catch him boasting, as Sue Fea discovers.

Trying to draw legendary Queenstown helicopter pilot Alfie Speight to boast about his 34-year career is like pulling teeth. Even getting him just to talk about it is hard enough.

That's probably the very reason Southland-born Speight is arguably New Zealand's most sought-after helicopter pilot for film and movie work, alongside the North Island's Tony Monk.

He's a man of few words and much skill - just the kind of guy Hollywood film-makers love - the less said the better in a world where all is under wraps until the end product hits the big screen.

While the big names of the movie world are out there working the red carpet, this unassuming 54-year-old Te Anau farm boy has been backstage keeping mum, just the way he likes it.

It's this extreme humility and loyalty that has landed Speight the top flying job on film-maker Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. He regularly has Hollywood greats upfront in his Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters' AS350 B2 Squirrel machine giving him instructions, his skills now sought-after internationally for aerial film work around New Zealand.

Speight's list of movie credits reads like a Hollywood A-Lister. He's clocked up some big names and flown a leading Hollywood camera operator into some of New Zealand's most stunning wilderness landscapes during filming for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Pry a little - actually a lot - and you'll discover that the leading camera operator was Dave Nowell, renowned worldwide as a veteran of 40 years expert aerial filming.

The Grasscutter, released in 1990, was probably Speight's first aerial job, followed by dozens of commercials, American movie The Vertical Limit, King Kong, The Lovely Bones and Wolverine, to name a few.

He's covered some amazing locations flying from Hamilton to Fiordland on filming missions for The Hobbit.

"You learn a lot from them. These guys do it all around the world. I do a bit of listening and try to get out of them what they want and try to get the machine in the right place."

Another regular in the passenger seat of his chopper has been English actor Andy Serkis, better known by most as "Gollum" from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serkis had both an acting and second-unit director role in The Hobbit.

"He sat in the back and gave me directions."

Speight grew up on the family farm at Redcliff, TeAnau. His uncle, David Speight, had a light plane and as a boy instilled in him a love of flying. After a year at Lincoln University, the former Waitaki Boys boarder decided university wasn't for him and in his late teens he trained for his pilot's licence at the Fiordland Aero Club.

It was the launch of what has been an impressive career, logging more than 14,000 flying hours.

"It was back in the deer recovery days in the late 70s. I started out being a shooter [out the door of the chopper] and just got into it, " says Speight. "It was just heaps of fun."

He moved to Queenstown to fly for Southern Lakes Helicopters where he progressed from sightseeing work to search and rescue.

His most dramatic rescue was probably a climbing tragedy at Chinaman's Bluff, a 530m rock face in the Dart River Valley, north of Glenorchy, almost four years ago. A climber fell about 200m to his death while his mate spent a distressing night on a narrow rock ledge and had to be plucked to safety.

Speight still flies the odd rescue mission and loves to show his beloved homeland off to sightseeing tourists, but 80 per cent of his time is spent flying for film crews, setting off from the hangar at sunrise.

"The film crews like to get the maximum daylight."

While you certainly won't catch Alfie Speight singing his own praises, there's no shortage of accolades from those he's worked with.

Other Queenstown pilots say his skill, humility, loyalty and quiet, easy- going disposition have made him one of the most sought-after and trusted aerial filming pilots in New Zealand.

His patience and ability to interpret what movie directors and camera operators are trying to convey, while holding the machine in position with precision for the shots, have earned him their trust.

Helicopter time doesn't come cheap and thousands of dollars of flying time per day represents an enormous investment. Few pilots are trusted to deliver in this highly specialised area of work.

And, of course, you'll never catch Speight dropping names. Film-makers know their secrets are safe.

It's not only secrets, he's trusted with but lives. Infamous Queenstown base jumper and adventurer Chuck Berry, renowned the world over for his daring leaps from giddying heights, has total faith in Speight.

"Alfie's my hero. He's 'Captain Smooth', " says Chuck. "I've never seen him get upset or jumpy - he's got such a good grasp of what's going on."

He's one of the few pilots trusted to film Berry's outrageously hair-raising adventure stunts frequently used in television commercials and films. Flying in close proximity to someone falling through the sky clad only in a 'wing suit' at speeds of up to 200km an hour is a risky business.

"He's unflappable - a total master with his machine, " Berry says.

"He's such a natural in the air. He can see so many possibilities and solutions to make things work where others can't." Berry says he worked with a director a few years ago, who had worked on James Bond movies and had described Alfie Speight as "the best camera pilot in the world".

"There have been times when Alfie's been flying the helicopter and I'm flying alongside in a wing suit and I use him as a target. You have a special relationship when you're using each other for target practice, " Berry quips.

Ground-breaking Queenstown company Shotover Camera Systems' also now enlists Speight's skill and advice when developing new aerial camera mounts for the industry.

"He's a very good film pilot and a pilot I feel really comfortable flying with. I guess it's his calmness - he just makes everyone feel at ease, " says Shotover Camera Systems director John Coyle.

"He just knows how to fly safely and how to position the helicopter to get a good shot from the air."

But Speight confesses he still gets a big kick out of showing off his home stamping ground - some of the world's most stunning scenery - to gob- smacked overseas visitors, whether sightseeing or heli-skiing. It's hard to get this laid-back country boy too excited, but even after all these years Speight admits flying is "still alright".

"There are worse things to do. It's still fun. There's some pretty nice countryside out there and generally people love it." So will he ever retire and shut down those rotor blades for good?

"I'll probably still be flying when I'm retired, " says Speight.

But if he ever does call it quits, son Thomas, 22, who works for Heli South in Invercargill as an agricultural pilot, is more than able to take over the controls.

There may be another Speight aerial legend in the making.

The Southland Times