John Grieve with his six-month-old son James (now 18) in the cockpit of a Boeing 767.
“James here already telling me he is seated too far back,” Grieve says.
Pilot John Grieve remembers his sixteenth birthday like it was yesterday. While most teens celebrated with their friends, Grieve enjoyed the milestone from 1000 feet on his first solo flight.
The former Timaru Boys’ High School student recalls caddying for his father at age 12 as he played with colleagues at the Levels Golf Course in Timaru. He would spend more time watching the skies than the fairways, looking across the fence to watch the planes take off from South Canterbury Aero Club. It’s the first memory he has of wanting to fly planes.
Fifty three years later, the 65-year-old is now based in Auckland and has just formerly retired as a Captain at Air New Zealand.
Grieve trained for his private pilots licence at Canterbury Aero Club, while studying for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Canterbury, and before relocating to Whanganui to train as a commercial pilot at Whanganui Aero Club.
“I found the training very good as it was a Government-approved school and was under Ivon Warmington a World War II Lancaster captain – an excellent pilot,” Grieve said.
“After training, I was then offered an instructor position there and was grateful as the debt was now substantial and jobs were few and far between.”
Years later, in 1977, once he started regularly flying for Air New Zealand, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“[I loved] the freedom, being your own boss, the lifestyle, the challenge of landing in difficult weather, and the comradeship of your crew,” he said.
Highlights of his long career include saving four people who were stranded in heavy seas on the seaward side of the Wanganui River after their boat had overturned.
Grieve, flying a Piper Aircraft (PA-28) dropped a life raft close to them, which they successfully boarded. This rescue required precision flying and the technique was one he’d worked on under Warmington’s tutelage.
Grieve is modest about his other achievements.
“I guess flying the 747 to Nuremberg in Germany as a charter for Air New Zealand to pick up military personnel in 2006 sticks in my mind and the many charters to small Japanese Airfields whilst on the 767 were all great trips,” he said.
Another memorable moment in a busy career includes work flying as a pilot, while on leave without pay in Nigeria for a year in 1982. This included working 16 days on and 16 days off, flying back and forth from Europe.
“One night when there had been the usual chaos in passenger boarding of the 737 - which always included baton-wielding security officers, and 150 people trying to get onto a 120-seat aircraft – I came out of the cockpit to observe some of the passengers coming up the steps. I saw a businessman in a suit with his tie askew and blood coming from several head wounds from the baton. He looked at me and said in his thick Nigerian accent: ‘I hate flying Nigeria Airlines’. It's amazing what your new normal becomes.”
His favourite routes to fly? Grieve cannot look past the Tahiti to Los Angeles return flights on the 767 and the Los Angeles to London route on the 747, especially when he was able to see the Northern Lights.
As he considers all that retirement has to offer, Grieve looks forward to further travelling with his wife Rebecca, with motorbike trips across the United States and beyond high on their agenda.
He takes with him a lot of fond memories.
“I will miss the lifestyle of enjoying both going away and returning home, the shopping; the motorbike trips in San Francisco, exploring Scotland and the company of the many great characters I have had the privilege to fly with,” he said.
Grieve has been a member of NZALPA since 1977 and says being part of the union has always been the obvious choice for its collective solidarity.
“That feeling of having the support of a national and international organisation behind you is invaluable. The many benefits available to all members are a plus – I have experienced the benefit of the medical section a couple of times.”
As Grieve reflects on a whirlwind career, he knows he has come a long way from being a bearded, long-haired 21-year-old working as a teacher at St Andrew’s College, in Christchurch, to save money for flight school – having quickly worked out that flying, not teaching, was the career for him.
“The beard and long hair didn't quite suit the school’s image,” he said.
“And it didn't suit my image to discipline the boys all day and then get them to later push my Humber 80 down the driveway to get it started.”
He’s come even further still from carrying his father’s golf clubs and watching other pilots take to the mid-Canterbury skies. He’ll be looking for one pilot in particular – his son James – who is now attending Nelson Aviation College, and like his father took his first solo aged just 16.
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