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Back in the cockpit: Grant Stewart's about to start flying the Cessna 208 Caravan for Milfor Sound Scenic Flights

A likeable, quick-witted, occasionally out-landish long-time local, spiky-haired Grant Stewart’s best known for his former broad-casting career. He’s also an experienced pilot who’s returning to the air now his job’s been disestablished. PHILIP CHANDLER looks at the 58-year-old’s varied career 

If anyone typifies the versatility of so many Queenstowners, it’s Grant Stewart.

From aircraft engineer to rafting guide, teacher to petrol pump attendant, radio broadcaster and pilot to aviation safety manager, it’s almost a case of what hasn’t he done?

That versatility’s serving him well right now, during this tourism crisis.

Like so many in town he’s been laid – in this case, by a down-sizing Ngai Tahu Tourism Helicopters – but this week he’s simply moving next door to fly again for Milford Sound Scenic Flights.

Stewart’s just about one of those rarities – a true local.

At the age of three, he moved here from Timaru in the mid-’60s when his parents, Judy and Ron, took over Frankton’s Europa service station.

His mum even filled up the Rolls Royces deployed for the Queen’s visit in 1970, before resuming her nursing/caring career which she still pursues part-time today, aged 88.

He attended the then-tiny town’s primary and secondary schools when they were on either side of Ballarat Street, before moving to the new Wakatipu High in Gorge Road in 1980 for his final year – the same school that was demolished last year.

He then joined the airforce in Auckland, becoming an aircraft engineer and working on Hercules planes and Iroquois helicopters.

Stewart chucked in that career to do an undergraduate degree in education, which he later used when teaching English and PE at a high school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Between times, he worked as a rafting guide in Queenstown, Australia and then in the United States.

While in the US – “I was earning good money, under the table” – he did his pilot’s licence “from zero hours up to full commercial and instrument flying”.

Back in Queenstown in the early ’90s he couldn’t find work, so became a “hydrocarbon transfer technician” at the Mobil station in Stanley St.

While there, he listened to the new station, QFM, later Q92FM, playing music he liked like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.

After phoning in repeated requests for more of the same, he was given his own ‘desert island’ show where guests brought their favourite music.

Station boss Chas Drader, the legendary broadcaster who died last month, “called me up and said, ‘you sounded pretty good on radio, would you like a job?”‘

That started a 10-year radio career involving copywriting and hosting The Odd Couple breakfast show with Craig ‘Ferg’ Ferguson – he and colleague Andy Schollum also won a radio award for a music show they hosted.

His wicked sense of humour sometimes got him into trouble – “I’m like Jeremy Clarkson, I like to go to the edge and have a wee look every now and again”.

“I was fired two or three times and then hired [back] that same day because they had so many commercials to write.

“Radio set me up for just about everything else, as far as discipline goes – although I didn’t seem that disciplined – and just attitudes to life.”

After radio, his flying career, which he’d carried on intermittently, took off full-time.

Nothing gives him more pleasure than visual, hands-on flying around the mountains and showing visitors his backyard.

He now has almost 7000 hours under his wings, though his career stalled when he succumbed to neck cancer in 2016 and had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

He puts his recovery down to good genes, his devoted partner, Dawn Sherbrooke, good attitude and a good road crew.

He then took a desk job as safety manager/occurrence investigator for Ngai Tahu Tourism Helicopters, but also passed his medical test to enable him to resume flying.

Radio’s now in his distant past but he still regularly wields a microphone, MC-ing events like the Glenorchy Races and community fundraisers with his old mate, ‘Ferg’.

Now 58, he says if he can keep on passing his medicals, “I will just keep aviating, communicating, navigating”.

scoop@scene.co.nz