Half-century in the skies


Brush with death inspired Wakatipu fly-boy Jules Tapper to great heights. Philip Chandler reports

A Queenstowner who today celebrates 50 years of flying credits an early near-death experience for shaping his career. 

Jules Tapper crashed a Cessna into the sea off Wanganui during a night flying exercise, due to engine failure, and had to swim for his life. 

“That was pretty traumatic – it probably put 10 years on my life in terms of maturity and attitude.” 

In his book, published last year, he states: “I have always driven myself pretty hard, mostly I think because of my flying accident in my late teens and my miraculous escape from death.” 

Tapper, 67, has never been a full-time pilot but has built his business life around his passion. 

As early as eight, he wrote to the Air Force about becoming a pilot. He had his flying licence by the time he was 17. Soon after he bought his first plane – a Tiger Moth biplane – before he owned a bike or a car. 

In the late 60s, Tapper set up the Hollyford Valley Walk in Fiordland and operated up to five aircraft to fly in gear and food and take trampers out. 

In the 80s he managed the former Mount Cook Group in Queenstown, after originally running its flightseeing operation. 

Tapper estimates he’s flown 106 different planes, helicopters and gliders, and another half dozen paragliders – a sport he took up 10 years ago after being inspired by his son Angus. 

Altogether he’s flown about 9140 hours – 7500 in fixed wings, 1000 in choppers, 300 in gliders and 340 in paragliders. 

“If all continues well for a few more years I might get lucky and get through the magic 10,000-hour milestone that many pilots aspire to, but it is relatively unimportant to me now.” 

Tapper – who last year was conferred an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his service to aviation and tourism – currently averages about 150 to 160 hours a year, flying about once a fortnight. 

“Short-haul, I use a little Robinson 22 [helicopter] – for example, I went to Martins Bay to buy some whitebait just recently. 

“For anything over an hour, hour and a half, I usually use the Cessna 185 – I’ve owned that for 38 years.” 

On European holidays with his wife Jenny, he likes to paraglide, often from peak tops. 

“In one trip I flew in seven countries, at 38 sites, for an average flight time of just over an hour – the longest flight was five and a half hours.” 

Tapper has a mountain flying instructor’s rating and is pleased this discipline is now incorporated into commercial and private pilot training. 

“At a local inquest I got pretty upset with unnecessary deaths with people that just didn’t have the knowledge to keep them out of danger. 

“The biggest thing in aviation is knowing your aeroplane and its capabilities, and having the right attitude. 

“And the other thing is to ask questions. 

“They developed a mentoring system for the helicopter industry [in NZ] to try to get the accident rate down and it was very successful.”