He was a fighter pilot in WWII, a topdressing pilot in the '50s and he even started his own airline in the '60s. Now living in Wanganui, veteran aviator Phil Lightband shares his story with the Chronicle's Zac Yates.
"I'm still flying just as well as before. It's just like driving a car as you get older you tend to slow down." - Phil Lightband, aviator
Phil Lightband has been flying almost every year for the past 80.
He started out in wood-and-fabric biplanes and ended up in streamlined aluminium airliners, with gun-toting fighter-bombers in between. He's known throughout the New Zealand aviation scene for his career and accomplishments and is still flying at 88 years old.
His first flight was at age 7 and Phil says he remembers it well, it was with famous Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith in his equally famous plane, the Southern Cross. Five years before, Kingsford Smith and his crew had made the first flight across the Pacific in the blue and silver plane, and then the first across the Tasman.
In 1933 the famous pair were touring New Zealand giving rides, and Phil's dad paid for them to take a 10-minute joyride over New Plymouth.
"We were sat in wicker chairs, which I don't think were even tied down at all. I remember it was a lovely day and I really got a kick out of it.
"That started me off."
His dad later taught Phil how to fly and he got his pilot's licence at 15 although to conform with the law his age was recorded as 17.
Phil used this "oversight" to his advantage when he met Esther Hart.
"When we met he showed me his licence and that said he was 17. It wasn't until later I found out that the whole time we were going out I was actually three months older than him," Esther recalls.
When he turned 18 Phil signed up to the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He was trained at Blenheim and Ohakea on Harvards and, having mastered the noisy trainer, moved on to Kittyhawk fighters at Ohakea. Then it was on to Corsair fighter-bombers at Ardmore near Auckland. He said he preferred flying the bent-winged Corsair to the slight, sleek Kittyhawk.
"It looks like a big brute of a thing to fly, but it's not. It was quite soft on the controls and more agile than the Kittyhawk. The Corsair was way ahead.
"Imagine 19-year-olds in machines like that. We had a lot of fun."
Phil had continued his relationship with Esther during his training, and the couple were married in 1944, just before Phil left for his first combat posting to the islands. He served two tours in the Pacific theatre flying the Corsair in combat against Japanese forces with 17 Squadron RNZAF. A look at his logbook gives a taste of what being a fighter pilot involved late in the war - bombing, strafing and escorts out of Green Island, and then patrol missions from Los Negros. Some missions lasted up to five hours in the air.
"We operated around Rabaul and New Britain. Rabaul was the main fortress for the Japanese, we had orders to isolate the town and ensure nothing came in and out. Mostly that meant hassling transports and barges, but we essentially went after anything that moved.
"After a while they had to live in caves because the town was a mess, everything was totalled. They came out every now and again but dive-bombing eventually took care of them," he said.
After the war he struggled to find work as a pilot, so in 1949, when a friend suggested going to England, buying a plane and then flying it back to sell in NZ, Phil was in.
With Esther at home looking after their first-born son Max, Phil and Pete Hobart sailed to England to find a plane. They settled on a Percival Proctor III, a three-seater plane similar to the one used by Jean Batten for her world record flights. They bought it for £400 and proceeded to fly it to Australia with passenger Don McBean, a flight across more than 13,000 miles with 44 stops in 16 countries for fuel.
It took them just under two months. No mean feat for a plane without radios or long-range fuel tanks.
"That was the highlight of my career," Phil says.
Phil's father met the pair in Sydney and he purchased the Proctor from them to cover their costs. The by-now famous machine flew with the New Plymouth Aero Club but was destroyed in a hangar fire less than six months later.
After the Proctor adventure Phil, like so many other ex-RNZAF pilots, was again without work so he got into aerial topdressing. Flying for Rural Aviation at New Plymouth, he started out in Tiger Moths, later moving on to more powerful Cessnas.
Rural never had a base at Wanganui Airport, but Phil says he flew all around the region spreading fertiliser.
"I flew as much here as I did in Taranaki, Raetihi, Taihape, Waitotara. I can tell you I know nearly every paddock around here. We did a lot of flying out the back of Kai Iwi and the hills around there were very steep. We also made a lot of very good friends with farmers around Waverley."
In the mid-60s the company secured the NZ sales rights for Cessna Aircraft, their models proving popular with aero clubs around the country, and Phil became a plane salesman as well as a manager. Later the company underwent management changes so Phil and Esther decided to move to Samoa, where he set up Air Samoa.
This time red tape reared its head. Because of American regulations his pilot's licence wasn't recognised so he had to retrain from scratch.
Once that was sorted he ran Air Samoa for three years before finally retiring from commercial flying to run a chicken farm in Fiji.
In 1978 the couple returned to New Zealand to run a hotel and later retired to Mangonui in the Far North. They lived next to their son Don but when he died from cancer late last year the couple moved to Wanganui, as their eldest son runs the Aramoho Hotel.
Esther says this was an odd coincidence.
"Before he went to war my brother Max was engaged to the daughter of the owner of the Aramoho Hotel, so when our son - who we named after my brother - called to say he'd bought the same hotel we couldn't believe it!"
The couple bought their Aramoho home in late December and Phil says the city is a great place to live.
"It's just the right size. Up north we really were in the wop-wops with no facilities at all, but here we have everything. It's the perfect place to live for an older person, because it's so easy to find your way around and it's relatively flat with not many hills and steps.
"We're absolutely thrilled to bits to live here."
Phil still flies but because of his age can only fly light sports aircraft or microlights. "At my age I can't get a standard medical so I have to fly on a recreational licence, and unfortunately Wanganui doesn't have light sports aircraft for hire. I'm past the age where I'd want to buy one, so I fly at the Hawera Aero Club. I can just hire a plane and I don't have to worry about taking care of it, all the maintenance is taken care of.
"It's also cheaper there. It's less than $100 per hour with a microlight but more than $200 for a general aviation aircraft here."
He estimates he has around 10,000 hours' flying time to his name but that's only an estimation because one of his logbooks, the one covering the Air Samoa days, was stolen when their house was broken into.
But in the small Tecnam microlight he continues to add to his flying time, with Esther at his side in the passenger's seat.
"I'm still flying just as well as before. Maybe a bit slower. It's just like driving a car as you get older you tend to slow down."