Flying high

Tony O’Donnell was born in Greymouth to Mary and Hugh O’Donnell and raised in the family home at 19 Leonard Street, later moving to Geraldine Street.
From a young age he was fascinated by planes and dreamed of one day becoming a pilot.
“I remember when I was around four years old spotting a De Havilland Vampire aircraft of the RNZAF, and I think from that moment my fate was sealed. David and Lindsay Cameron from next door were there as well. I was always captivated by space travel back then, with the Apollo missions and such.”
It was in January 1967 while visiting Christchurch Airport during the school holidays that Tony’s life changed forever.
“I was with my mother as she had taken me to see the planes at the airport. Suddenly, over the loudspeaker a call was made to mum to receive a telephone call. The call was to tell mum dad had been killed in the Strongman Mine disaster, along with 18 other miners. We had just had a family holiday in Okarito and dad went back to work at the mine and we came across to Christchurch. Even though I was just seven years old I never forget that day.”
Growing up without a father as a guiding influence was tough but Tony says he was lucky to have older people to look up to and provide direction in his younger days: “My uncles, Billy Brennan and Stan Fearn, Tommy Cameron, Doc Rooney, Bob Offord and Brian McEnaney to name a few, all helped shape my world along the way. They were all guiding influences for me in my earlier years.”
Tony was educated at the Marist Brothers School in Greymouth and was then a boarder at St Kevin’s College in Oamaru. All the time he was exploring the processes and avenues of flight.
“I spent a lot of time on building plastic aeroplane models, along with Chris and Phil Ward, who lived close by, off Marsden Road. The interest in aeronautical terms, aviation, glow plug engines and balsa wood construction were all tested in Perotti Park and this was pre-internet and cellphone technology. Aviation legend Sir Tim Wallis grew up next door at 2 Geraldine Street, which was handy.”
Tony says he enjoyed his teenage years on the West Coast, brushing shoulders with numerous likeable young characters.
“The likes of Womble Brennan, Couzer Hillman, Cocky Walton, Chooky Richardson, Spaz Pfeifer and Dutchy Bakker, and representing the West Coast in a rugby league schoolboys team with Wayne Dwyer and Bernie Green are fond memories for me.
“I joined the Greymouth Aero Club in 1978 and I soon found flying is an expensive business, so the jobs I worked at such as the Kaniere gold dredge operating dozers for the shore crew with Sammy Stewart, fishing with Alan Rooney and forestry with the Ahaura gang, helped pay for flying lessons, along with selling a few possum pelts as well.”
He moved to Christchurch to join the New Zealand Army, becoming a qualified head chef, but the drive to take to the skies remained a priority.
“I had joined the Canterbury Aero Club in 1977 but in 1978 I was back in Greymouth and Geoff Pointer was my instructor down in Hokitika. Ted Hillman from Blaketown was learning as well and we would go down to train at Hokitika, flying the Cherokee 140. Ted is now flying planes in Bahrain with another West Coast boy, Geoff Devlin. They fly the Boeing 767 aircraft DDHL freighters over there.
“Damien Paine, Arran Ross and Andrew Duncan are other West Coast boys flying for Air New Zealand. When you first train, you train as a student and then get a student pilot licence to fly solo.”
Once he got his private licence he was able to take people up with him, but not for hire or reward.
“You had to have a minimum of 200 hours to be able to get a commercial pilot’s licence after sitting five three-hour exams and a two-hour flight with a flight examiner from Civil Aviation. It’s a full day examination and you need a 70% pass. No one will employ you, though, until you clock up more hours. I increased my flying hours by instructing students at the Canterbury Aero Club, parachute piloting, seaplane flying, commercial balloon flights, thousands of crossings of Foveaux Strait . . . I was working for South Air Bus at Invercargill and I was flying back and forward to Stewart Island bringing the crayfish in and out.”
From flying fish, Tony spread his wings and was next flying for Air New Zealand and at the controls of the large 767 aircraft flying in and out of the main New Zealand airports.
He spent over seven years flying the 767 and is now at the controls of a brand new 787 Dreamliner.
“I was flying with Air NZ in 2005 and am now with the company’s Dreamliner. Air New Zealand has nine of them, they are a highly modified carbon fibre aircraft a pretty impressive machine which carries 310 people. The 787 flies the Pacific Rim, up to Nadi, next week Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo and Perth.”
Based in Auckland he works a 28-day roster which operates under a seniority system.
“You make the roster work for you and some pilots prefer to do double bangers, over to Aussie and back again the same day, but I like a bit of variety.”
With his job as a pilot he has seen the world but long hours in the air and away from home have come at a cost.
“I tried the married thing for a while but my job was tough on my marriage. My wife Lucia and I went our separate ways, but we have two wonderful children Ryan and Sinead. I have regular contact with them through my work and ensure I am flying to Perth so I can see them.”
New Zealand pilots are respected in the aviation industry and that has opened up doors for Tony in his 40-year career flying the skies.
“I was flying for Zimek Aviation in Switzerland doing a lot of contract work in oil operations for the United Nations. My thing was mainly oil and the company I worked for just loved Kiwi pilots. I did a lot of contract work in Africa, flying an aerial taxi. I was flying a twin-engine turboprop De Havilland.”
Flying a number of different planes was enjoyable but not always a bed of roses, as Tony reflects on the times he had to call on all his ability as a pilot while courting disaster.
“In my career as a pilot I have had four-engine shutdown failures in flight. I was chief pilot for Sunflower Air Lines in Fiji and on this particular occasion I was taking off and the propeller went side on to the airflow. It happened right on take-off but I managed to get the plane in the air to 300ft and then came around at low level and landed on one engine. Another time I was flying over Foveaux Strait and an engine cut out, but one of the true adrenalin pumping occasions was in Africa. I was flying at high altitude with 10 passengers on board when an engine shut down I landed on one engine.”
He has seen the world from above and covered some territory flying the skies. He spent 10 years flying turbo-props in Rarotonga and Fiji, was based in Switzerland for seven years flying support missions for oil, the UN operations in Angola and Algeria, and then finally returning to fly for Air New Zealand.
“I’ve certainly enjoyed my 40 years flying, beats working for a living, My life-long ambition as a kid was to become a P and T lineman if I couldn’t be a pilot. I want to express a thought especially for any young people on the Coast wanting to achieve their dreams. Remember the 7Ps prior planning preparation prevents piss poor performance.”