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Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Inside the cockpit: 30 years as Air NZ's top pilot

Aviation romantic David Morgan is also Air NZ's great problem-solver

At 23, pilot David Morgan was crystal clear about what he wanted to be.

Not just any commercial pilot -- he was well into gaining that ticket -- but the top pilot at the country's national airline.

"I had a clear sense of what I wanted to achieve. I had an aspiration -- I wrote myself a letter and I said I'd like to be the chief pilot for Air New Zealand and I achieved that."

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Morgan has been an important -- and famously calm -- constant at the airline for 31 years, most of them in upper management and now in the eight-member executive team. He has responsibility as chief pilot and safety across the 11,000-strong company and he's also in charge of a growing area for the airline -- sustainability.

But he still loves getting back on the flight deck and he flies Boeing 777s about once every 10 days.

He describes flying a plane as a joy.

"The fact that you leave the ground and you see the Earth from a different perspective and you leave issues on the ground. You are in the environment where you are the primal element and you have to control and manage that -- fundamentally flying is a great joy to leave the ground and be part of the elements in the air."

But as well as being an aviation romantic he's down to earth -- he's a can-do Kiwi, a problem solver.

Journalists get an insight into some of this if ever on assignment with Morgan to places like Boeing's Seattle base. They're busy trips with packed itineraries but he's usually the one who knows exactly where you've got to be off the top of his head, finds his way around these places with ease and he's great to sit with -- he's got a knack of dissecting and explaining complex technical matters ranging from aircraft construction to the mysteries of American football in a digestible way.

Air New Zealand's chief pilot Captain David Morgan with Air New Zealand's newest Boeing 777-300ER. Photo / Greg Bowker
Air New Zealand's chief pilot Captain David Morgan with Air New Zealand's newest Boeing 777-300ER. Photo / Greg Bowker

Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon says Morgan is known for his willingness to pitch in and his massive love of aviation.

"He is a terrific guy to know and to be around and a great teacher of all things aviation to lay people," says Luxon.

Invercargill-raised Morgan also does a good line in understatement.

He was in the eye of storm when Ansett's collapse nearly brought down Air New Zealand in 2001, an experience he describes as "interesting". His hairiest moment -- commanding a passenger jet when bird strike meant a rapid return to a dark Invercargill Airport -- was "not very pleasant".

I sleep well knowing that we've got an organisation with a tremendous amount of capability.

With more than 100 planes in the Air New Zealand fleet and thousands of staff and many more passengers potentially in harm's way around the clock it pays to be calm. Morgan's clarity of thinking and calmness under pressure is widely acknowledged.

"I sleep well knowing that we've got an organisation with a tremendous amount of capability," he says. "Safety is layered, it's all a shared value in the organisation but it does demand that people know their roles are well trained."

There's a long line of safety requirements that need to be ticked off well before takeoff.

"We all make mistakes, but if you can make a system that is tolerant of those, that's how you make safety better," he says. "I don't lie awake at night worrying -- if I did I'd get out."

Destined to fly

His father Bill, an accountant, was club captain of the Southland Aero Club in Invercargill, where Morgan was born.

"That's where I got the whiff aviation in my nostrils. My first sense of an aircraft was flying with my father in the early 1960s. My first flight was on my mother's lap in a Tiger Moth."

The family had a crib in Arrowtown and spent holidays flying around Central Otago.

The Morgan family moved to Auckland in 1969 and he went on to attend Auckland Grammar, where, give or take a few, years his contemporaries and mates were the cricketing Crowe brothers and the rugby playing Whettons, with whom he ended up boarding -- and packing on 5kg as the growing athletes were fed up. He was shoulder-tapped by first XI (and later All Black) coach Graham Henry to manage the side and for a time went on to umpire at a first class level.

His schooling was based around his aim of becoming a pilot, with an emphasis on science, maths and technology.

A1GP driver Jonny Reid talks with Air New Zealand Captain Dave Morgan, after racing their way down the runway. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A1GP driver Jonny Reid talks with Air New Zealand Captain Dave Morgan, after racing their way down the runway. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"I left halfway through the 7th form because I had what I needed to further my career. The next thing was getting the cash to do it," he says.

He worked for Dalgety stock and station agents in the accounts department and ended up in the travel agency where he got an early taste of the travel business while flying out of Ardmore to build up his hours.

For about five years in the early 1980s he flew Cessnas across to Waiheke Island and traffic-spotting planes.

With his commercial and airline transport pilot's licence he passed a panel interview and joined Air New Zealand in 1985 as the airline added Boeing 767s.

His first planes were the quirky Fokker Friendship, which had a Dutch design, British engines and a flight deck that looked as if a bucket of switches had been thrown in and stuck where they'd landed.

"The ergonomics of that airplane were something." They were also a big step up.

I had a clear sense of what I wanted to achieve. I had an aspiration -- I wrote myself a letter and I said I'd like to be the chief pilot for Air New Zealand and I achieved that.

"The biggest aeroplane I'd flown up to then was a Cessna 402 which took six people or eight at a pinch and then next thing you're in something that takes 40 people and weighs a lot more."

And that sense of responsibility never goes away.

"You do fly the room around and everyone comes along behind you. You look down the aisle and see all these people, the kids, the mothers -- you realise this is serious."

Morgan says pilots have to understand the power of the uniform in helping soothe nervous flyers and, if there are any delays, try to demystify problems.

"Making a pa [public announcement] at the gate and explaining what's going on, why it's going on, how long it's going to take, is hugely important."

Dealing with tragedy

Leaving the ground is potentially dangerous, but Morgan says if you want to avoid risk, don't get out of bed in the morning.

He purposely reminds himself of the consequences of what can happen if things go wrong, laying wreaths at Erebus memorials every year.

"It's a responsibility that I take very seriously and it's a solemn duty to remember who has gone before us but to remind myself of the obligations I have to the travelling public to keep them safe. We are in the business of dealing with risk so the challenge is to make sure that we consistently remember that."

The DC10 crash in Antarctica happened six years before Morgan joined Air New Zealand and he's proud of how the airline finally, in 2009, acknowledged how it had let down the victims' families and began a programme of flights to the ice for them.

Morgan's response to the crash of an A320 off Perpignan in France in 2008 -- which claimed the lives of four Air New Zealand staff and three others -- and his coolness under pressure has been praised by former and current colleagues.

A1GP driver Jonny Reid in Black Beauty (the A1 Team NZL race car) races the Air New Zealand Boeing 777-200 piloted by Captain Dave Morgan. Photo / File
A1GP driver Jonny Reid in Black Beauty (the A1 Team NZL race car) races the Air New Zealand Boeing 777-200 piloted by Captain Dave Morgan. Photo / File

Former chief executive Rob Fyfe says Morgan stood shoulder to shoulder with him in France following the crash.

"David was a rock through that period and the families of those who lost their lives came to rely heavily on David to help understand the complex flight safety concepts they were trying to understand as the tragedy unravelled," he says.

"And then David was also instrumental in working with me to address the legacy of Erebus and co-ordinating the family memorial flights to Antarctica -- again I know his contribution was valued enormously by the families and I valued his guidance immensely during that time."

Chief marketing and customer officer Mike Tod says in a crisis there is no one better to have by your side.

"Whether it was the airline's response to the Christchurch earthquakes, the air accident in Perpignan or various other issues over the decade or so that we have worked together on, David has always had impeccable control of the situation, leading our emergency management response. It's a side of his role that few people see and he is a master at it."

"Oyster catchers down the spout"

Morgan rose through the ranks and transferred to Boeing 737-200s and then back to Friendships as a captain. There was rapid growth in the airline because of the number of 767s coming in for flying around the Pacific Rim. He became a co-captain then a captain of a 737 when he had his scariest experience.

"I took three oystercatchers down the spout in a 737-200 taking off out of Invercargill in my first month in command. We took off and sucked three of these things off the runway -- it was 7 o'clock in winter, dark, not very pleasant."

Though the aircraft could fly happily on one and three quarter engines as it had to then, he said he got "a big fright" before putting the plane down. Morgan keeps a mangled fan blade from the plane in his Auckland Airport office as a souvenir.

He moved into project management and was then appointed manager of Air New Zealand's large 767 fleet -- a role which took him to Australia when the airline made its ill-fated Ansett purchase.

"Straddling the Tasman was interesting."

A good day at the office for David is a day when he's been able to share his love of aviation with passengers, colleagues or the public.

After Ansett's 767s were grounded because of engine pylon cracks, the Australian airline's problems cascaded, resulting in its collapse after September 11, 2001, dragging Air New Zealand to the brink of failure with it.

"A lot of us at the time were concerned about the future of the airline.

"We were very clear about what we had to do and that was ensure the operation stayed safe and at the same time we had to grow when there was a whole lot of other things going on around us."

He says Air New Zealand directors since 2001 are the unsung heroes of the airline's financial turnaround to one of the most profitable in the world.

Morgan neatly summarises the strengths of his bosses.

To rebuild the airline the board appointed (Sir) Ralph Norris -- "what better than to have a banker at those times", -- Fyfe's mandate was to develop and build the culture, the market and the brand, and Christopher Luxon has brought commercial intensity.

"We went from one plateau to the next."

Going green

Successive chief executives have encouraged Morgan to keep flying but he had also expanded his role in other ways, including into sustainability.

The airline is the single largest consumer of petroleum products in the country on a daily basis and is looking at ways of cutting that.

During the past decade fuel use has fallen from around nine million barrels of oil to about eight million, even though the airline is flying more.

Efficient new planes have been instrumental but other measures such as winglets on 767s have saved 5 per cent and improved the residual value of the fleet, he says.

David Morgan still loves getting back on the flight deck. Photo / Brett Phibbs
David Morgan still loves getting back on the flight deck. Photo / Brett Phibbs

And after a foray into biofuel trials in 2008 the airline is again looking for alternatives, with Virgin Australia looking for a supplier of locally sourced biofuel.

He's an Air New Zealander through and through, a believer in the airline who can comfortably recite the corporate mantra as well as banter.

"We've got a real sense of what our purpose; which is to supercharge New Zealand's success socially, economically and environmentally."

Fyfe brought Morgan into what is now an eight-strong executive to not only bring on flying experience but to see what wider contribution he could make.

"What I discovered was not only a highly competent pilot who was highly respected by his peers, but someone for whom aviation was not only a job but his life's passion," Fyfe says.

What I discovered was not only a highly competent pilot who was highly respected by his peers, but someone for whom aviation was not only a job but his life's passion.

"David has a way of bringing the magic of flight to life for people of all ages. A good day at the office for David was a day when he'd been able to share his love of aviation with passengers, colleagues or the public." Morgan says that when he's flying he makes it clear to his fellow pilots they should challenge his decisions.

Airline Pilots Association acting president Tim Robinson says he hasn't flown with him but Morgan has been active in working closely with the pilots' group in developing substance abuse policies, professional development programmes and ongoing commemorations of the Erebus tragedy.

"We don't always agree -- he's got his views but we're able to engage."

Pilots in New Zealand can fly domestically beyond age 65, and though Morgan has no plans to go anywhere in the next decade, he says that mark might do him.

He and his wife Liz, who he met at an Ardmore tower party, have bought some land at Lake Hawea, near Wanaka, with the aim of building on it -- in a part of the country that is dear to his heart.

Stages of flight

Pilots turn up over an hour before departure, go to flight planning, run over the flight plan.

When at the aircraft pilots deal with "distraction management", getting the aircraft ready for flight and co-ordinating with the flight service manager when meals may be served and how turbulence may affect this.

They think about the maintenance state, refuelling, loading, get details of any dangerous goods on board and where they are loaded, update the weather and update the thrust settings for take-off because they vary each time.

"It all comes together on T-0 and you push back on time. There's not tension but a lot of thought is given to managing the takeoff," Captain David Morgan says.

Queenstown is David Morgan's favourite airport despite testing terrain. Photo / NZME
Queenstown is David Morgan's favourite airport despite testing terrain. Photo / NZME

"Landings are thought of as being the most difficult but in fact the take-off is. The aircraft's heavy, there's a lot of fuel you've got to fit in with traffic.

Getting to altitude is the critical phase of the flight and once there it's about managing the flight, most importantly how much fuel is being burned and how this fits in with the flight plan.

Morgan says while at cruise altitude pilots also constantly assess where the nearest airports are around them in case they have to divert in a hurry.

Flying ultra-long haul over ocean can get "a bit laborious".

Pilots rest after every two and a half hours.

"I'm never bored but it can drag. Having a good team around is the trick."

During the last hour of the flight pilots frame up the arrival, the type of approach, which runway will be used, slotting in with other traffic while reviewing fatigue and alertness levels on the flight deck.

Favourite airports

Queenstown -- Challenging terrain and down south so he's heading home.

Hong Kong's old Kai Tak -- Another challenge which he twice landed in command. "You'd be hard pressed to have an airport like that certified today."

Favourite plane

The Boeing 787 -- quiet, efficient and deals with turbulence a lot better.

David Morgan

• Air NZ's chief flight operations and safety officer
Age: 56
Family: Married to Liz with three children
Lives: in Greenlane
• Deputy chair of the Sustainable Business Council
• Deputy chair of the IATA operations committee

- NZ Herald

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