Ian Wakeling has grounded himself after 60 years in the commercial aviation industry.
To the average person in the street the now 84-year-old would hardly turn a head, but in helicopter circles, especially the agricultural topdressing field, Wakeling is a giant, a living legend.
His retirement dinner at the Kingsgate last month was a testament to that with virtually the who's who of helicopter flying around New Zealand taking over the Victoria Ave complex for the weekend.
Wakeling ended his long career as a consultant and flight instructor for the relatively new company Mid West Helicopters in Whanganui last month and chief pilot and former Wakeling flight student Dean Lithgow transported a Robinson 22 helicopter to the Kingsgate to help decorate the carpark in keeping with the occasion. Wakeling and the R22 were synonymous with each other over the years.
Lithgow began his training with Wakeling in 1987, but there were countless others before and after him.
Wakeling developed a passion for flying at an early age and found devious ways to feed that passion.
When boarding at the then Feilding Ag school in 1951 boarders were allowed to visit friends or relatives on Sundays, but had to have a name and address to put in the visitors book. They then had to be back for church by 4.30pm. The young Wakeling, however, did not have friends or relatives living in Feilding, so he went straight to the telephone directory. Instead of visiting fictitious friends, Wakeling would head straight to Taunui where the Feilding Airport was, dressed in his Sunday best.
He soon made friends with the aircrews and began helping to wash dirty Tiger Moth topdressing planes. Aerial topdressing was just a fledgling industry in the early 1950s. After each session Wakeling would scrub his suit clean and head back for church. He soon learned to take a change of clothes for washing planes and stored them at the airport. His experiences there only served to strengthen his resolve to become a pilot.
This and many other escapades Wakeling got up to throughout his life are delightfully documented in a book written by Whanganui author Anne Flutey. Entitled This Kiwi Can Fly – The Story of Ian Wakeling. The front cover of the short read features a picture of a Robinson helicopter parked up on the Bridge To Nowhere up the Whanganui River. It is a hugely interesting insight into Kiwi life during the early second half of last century and the antics Wakeling and the many flying mates he made along the way.
Back when Wakeling was a young teenager, his parents Bob and Winnie Wakeling, like most parents of the day, finally accepted their son would ultimately become a pilot, but insisted he first get a trade in case things turn pear-shaped.
Firstly, it would give him time to reconsider and secondly it would help pay for his own flight instruction, another stipulation Bob and Winnie imposed. Wakeling went to work as an apprentice mechanic for Hackett Motors earning the princely sum of £2 and sixpence (about $4.05). 1/6 went to tax, mother got 10 shillings for board and 10 shillings went into the bank. He stuck to his guns and completed the full five-year apprenticeship.
At 18 Ian Wakeling began his learn to fly journey at the Wanganui Aero Club under brand new flying instructor Mike Alexander in fixed wing aircraft. He obtained his private pilot licence in March, 1958. His first passenger was Australian deer culler Ben Buckley who later became famous for flying a microlight from Mallacoota in Victoria to Haast in 11 hours and 11 minutes.
Wakeling then through family friends secured a job as a large machinery mechanic in the high Arctic where three lines of radar stations were being built across Canada and the Arctic Circle by the United States during the height of the Cold War. This job was yet another amazing journey for Wakeling that would ultimately help pay for his commercial pilot licence once he returned home.
He began working as a loader driver for Rudnick Helicopters owned by American Eleanor Rubnick from Bakersfield in California. She began the business when she was just 20. A short time later Mike Alexander from Maxwell bought his own helicopter. Mike was son of JG Alexander of thoroughbred racehorse fame and owner of Cranliegh Stud in Maxwell. Wakeling had been loader driver for Rex Sherlock at Rudnick Helicopters and when Rex left to work with Mike Alexander the young Wakeling followed.
After securing his commercial fixed wing licence in 1960, Wakeling himself took to the air topdressing with Buzz Spilman of Aerial Farming, but the draw of flying helicopters was way too strong and he rejoined Mike Alexander's company, Aerial Applicators based at the Wanganui Airport, and training began. He went solo on June 1, 1963 and got his full licence on October 1, 1965 achieving a childhood ambition.
While Ian Wakeling only chalked up around 20,000 hours of flight time in choppers, a relatively small number given the years in the industry, it was 20,000 hours of story time much of which is covered in Anne Flutey's book.
The reason there were only 20,000 hours of flight time is down to the many high-powered desk jobs Wakeling had over the years, including spells with Hiller Helicopters travelling the world as marketing director selling aircraft to governments and companies across the globe.
He was a sought after man in the world of helicopters, not only as a pilot, but also as a salesman, including spells with James Aviation which led to work with Hiller Aviation that again took him all over the world, including Japan, Israel and North America. He also spent time with our very own Sir Tim Wallis, the man behind the Warbirds over Wanaka.
Wakeling was also operations manager for Wanganui Aero Work and its then fleet of seven helicopters in the late 1980s. Wanganui Aero Work was one of the most respected and long serving aerial topdressing companies when owned by the Harding family. It is now owned by Ravensdown Fertiliser operating fixed wing aircraft.
Wakeling has not renewed his pilot licence this year and last flew on Queens Birthday Weekend this year.
He plans a quiet retirement with wife Ngaire.