Saturday, April 04, 2015

Simon Spencer-Bower: Helicopter pilot sets high farming and flying standards

Safety goes hand in hand for flying and farming, says Simon Spencer-Bower.

As a boy Simon Spencer-Bower would crane his neck to the sky to watch the crop dusters flying over his family farm at Eyrewell.

The deep  impression their aerial feats made on the youngster was to set him on a lifetime of flying with a healthy mix of farming.

As soon as he left school he gained his fixed-wing pilot license in 1967, aged 18.

Nearly 48 years later the master pilot, 66,  has won acclaim as as one of nine winners in this year's Helicopter Association International (HAI) Salute to Excellence Awards. Spencer-Bower was awarded the flight instructor of the year award at the HAI annual Heli-Expo in Orlando, Florida last month.

Back in Wanaka, the magnitude of being honoured internationally is still sinking in.

He says his family deserve credit as without their support none of the achievements would have been possible.

"I'm extremely proud of winning something like this. It's good recognition for New Zealand and to recognize someone from New Zealand is something special."

Spencer-Bower says New Zealand pilots deserve to be recognised for their high flying ability as they are working around the world and sought after for their can-do, "fix it with No 8 wire" attitude.

Many of those pilots owe their good training to Spencer-Bower. Over decades he has guided them from the family farm at Claxby for the first 15 years and latterly the small Central Otago airport at Wanaka, now home to him and his flying family.

Since switching from fixed wing aircraft to becoming a helicopter pilot in 1980 and going on to become a helicopter flight instructor in 1984 Spencer-Bower has logged about 21,000 hours.

When he wanted to get his instructor paperwork this proved to be more difficult than it sounded with only a handful of civilian pilots qualified to do the job. He realized the lack of civil helicopter training presented an opening and soon had aspiring aviators asking him to teach them to fly.

About 12,500 of his total flight hours have been in helicopter dual flight instruction and he has trained nearly 600 pilots to a private, commercial or instructor level.

Hovering a helicopter over the beaches of the Gold Coast requires skill, but flying over the South Island with its challenging topography below takes flying to another level.

The harsh, mountainous terrain and swirling air currents are testing and helicopter pilots from around the world come to the family's Wanaka Helicopters business for mountain flying training courses.

"New Zealand has an island climate rather than a continental climate which is more volatile. Pilots learn different skills to cope with the changeable weather this climate produces and become very versatile."

Spencer-Bower has the only mountain training course in advanced helicopter flying approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

He has seen many pilots pass through his guidance and takes pride in passing on his flying knowledge.

"I'm passionate about producing good helicopter pilots with above average abilities rather than run-of-the-mill pilots.  The intention has always been to produce a pilot with more skills than just to pass a flight test. I don't want to produce a robot I want to produce a thinking pilot."

Wanaka Helicopters is a family run operation. Wife Carolyn is integral to the business and their son Peter flies helicopters in Haast for another family company, Greenstone Helicopters. Their other son Chris is a helicopter pilot, newly married in the United States and daughter Charlotte is a graphic designer and does a lot of marketing and design work for the business.

The family has four Robinson R22 two seaters and two Robinson R44 four-seaters at Wanaka with another extra-light, composite built two seater - a French model- due to arrive in June. An Airbus AS350 Squirrel is a seven seater.

About 60 per cent to 70 per cent of flying hours are spent training pilots and the rest with commercial work such as scenic flying.

Spencer Bower is no longer called out to assist with rescues - largely tied up in contracts today unlike the old days when emergency calls commonly went out to operators.

He says rescue work is thought to be dangerous, but should be routine.

Flying operations should  be conducted with safety margins so there is always a "way out" option.

"Safety is a word everyone uses and is sometimes over-used. Safety is really a culture and to me means doing it right all the time."

There was a time when he used to instruct high country farmers so they could use helicopters to run their large stations.

"Initially in the early days there were a lot of farmer and business type clients, but the nature of this has changed in recent years with the advent of student loans enabling people from all walks of life to complete their helicopter pilot training."

Among his many hours of air time is a good sprinkling spent in aerobatic flying in a Tiger Moth.

His route to this came about in a curious way. He was on a bulldozer clearing trees from the big wind of the early 1970s when a tree "whacked" him on the head leaving him deaf in one ear and with a loss of balance.

To rectify his balance he would stand on the back of a farm truck feeding out hay and also began performing aerobatic manoeuvres in a Tiger Moth he has owned since 1974. He perfected this enough to win 15 national vintage aerobatic titles in the aircraft.

After working in farming full time to his 30s  it still has a place in his life.

"I was brought up on a farm and have been farming all my life and flying as well. My brother is on the original family farm at Eyrewell and this is split between him and myself.  Considerable time is spent between Wanaka and Eyrewell especially at the moment because of the development going on there."

Claxby has been in the family for 150 years, a once dryland wool stronghold increasingly being surrounded by dairy farms.

The established 1623 hectare property has joined this movement and is being converted to dairying and pastoral production.

Gone already are the halfbreds that took pride on the farm during the stint of his late father, Marmaduke Spencer Bower who carried on running the farm into his 90s.

The prized halfbreds were replaced by lamb-bearing ewes with less emphasis on wool and the march of farming change will continue with dairy cows to overtake them.

Both families are pragmatic enough to know Claxby must adapt to the times.

The border-dyke irrigation that was developed at the farm in the 1970s by their innovative father is being replaced by modern spray irrigation.

"In this day and age we have to be more efficient and spray irrigation does a much better job than border dyke. We have converted the farm to spray irrigation and sheep and cropping to a dairy farm. We are the last I think in the district to change. One of the saddest things for me is knocking out all the trees we put in growing up for sheep and lamb shelter for the pivots. But we have a robust programme around the edges for low growing species."

He says the frustrating part of sheep farming was receiving low prices despite producing the best wool or lambs.

Even allowing for the low milk payout this season dairying provides more income and a better cashflow.

"It's no different from wool prices going up or down and you take the highs and lows. I love farming and flying as well and to be living in both occupations is tremendous. You create your occupation. People say you are lucky, but it's not luck, it's hard work."

Flying has given him the satisfaction of passing on his skills to other people and to see places that people might only visit once in their lifetime.

Spencer-Bower, awarded the Queen's Service Medal in 2010 for services to aviation, has no plans for retirement despite being of pension age.

"My idea of retirement is to do what you want when you want and not what you have to. Why would you retire when you enjoy your job?"