BOOK REVIEW: I Did It My Way: Bill Black
Compiled by Merv Halliday (RRP $40; billblack.co.nz)
Bill Black knew the easy way of cleaning sand and rubbish from the cockpit of his Tiger Moth - fly a loop, stop at the top upside down and most of the stuff on the floor will just fall out.
Except on this occasion the teenage flier's greasy lifejacket had slicked his slightly loose harness straps. When he reached the top of the loop, he started to slip out until he was upside down over his seat, held in by the straps which were at the extent of their stops and gripped at the connector by the thin material; his feet were off the rudder pedals, his hand was off the stick.
The plane turned over, Black fell back into his cockpit and went on to become a man who deserves to be called a southern legend. Decades later in his book, I Did It My Way, Black admits: "I got a fright that day,"
The book is a mixture of autobiography from Black himself and the memories of some of the people who worked or lived with him over 40 years. Merv Halliday collated the material which coincided with Black's 70th birthday.
The tale of the boy from Waiwera South who grew up in a secure family, loving model aircraft and avoiding school but who was destined to become a pilot is fascinating. Behind the pranks and hoonery is a youngster determined to succeed in his own way and through his own efforts.
His first plane was a Tiger Moth which he bought as a teenager. He worked at all sorts of jobs to have the money to fly, gain his licence and buy his first aeroplane.
He was 20 when he gained his commercial pilot's licence and his first job at Ritchie Air Services at [PndStlg]11 a week. "I had finally achieved my ambition of having someone else pay for every hour I flew."
He ended up at a raw Te Anau in 1964 in the days of six o'clock closing. Life seems very simple - sell the Tiger Moth for [PndStlg]320, buy an engagement ring for [PndStlg]300.
His 21st birthday party coincided with his first medical evacuation from Milford Sound, a man with appendicitis.
Then as now, flying in Fiordland and the coast of the lower South Island has numerous dangers and Black soon felt personal loss when a friend was killed in a plane crash. Others followed.
Black himself was to have his own close shaves over the years - or, as he more colourfully puts it, occasions when he looked God in the eye - including hydroplaning into trees off a lake not long afterwards.
He started off in fixed-wing aircraft but when he moved to Luggate Game Packers run by Tim Wallis, his involvement with helicopters and the venison industry began.
He was an early transplant to helicopters and his descriptions of the aerial shooting of thousands of deer in Fiordland and the deer wars that evolved when other helicopter operators railed against Luggate Game Packers's access are vivid.
What follows is the story of both the man and his industry maturing. It is not the easiest manuscript to follow but the anecdotes and the events described reveal not just Black's bravery but an incredible level of skill for which hundreds of people can be grateful.
The descriptions of the rescues - hanging over mountain ledges or trying to land medics and others on to the heaving bows of fishing boats in appalling seas and weather, all the time flying a complex piece of machinery - are jaw-dropping.
The difficulty for Halliday was that any book about Black would inevitably understate what the man actually achieved. Wisely, he has chosen to emphasise a comparative few such operations.
The rescue of a badly injured woman whose friend had already been killed when a tree fell on their tent near Lake MacKenzie late at night is a book in itself. Doctors were nearby but the woman was fading. She lived because Black managed to fly in during a violent storm and fly her out.
While the book tells the overall story, the detail of his life lies in line after line, page after page in the appendices revealing the magnitude of his flying career - 12 search and rescue missions undertaken with fixed-wing aircraft between 1964 and 1967; nearly 490 such flights by helicopter between 1967 and December 2000.
Then there is the list of 108 aircraft recoveries in the lower South Island; and 52 fires in the 30 years to 2000.
Black jokes at one point about his "office," a helicopter cockpit in which he slept on some jobs.
His "office," however, was really the sky and at last count, he had spent 29,535 hours in the air, which amounts to nearly three years and four months solid flying.
It's good he finally found time to complete this book.