Veteran pilots sign off after 103 years of flying between them
Veteran local pilots Doug Bruce and Peter Harrex are back down to earth – after notching up 103 years of flying planes between them.
The Kelvin Heights pals recently retired from the air division of tourism giant Real Journeys, which takes visitors on the spectacular 35-minute journey to Milford Sound from Queenstown Airport.
Bruce, 71, has been transporting people to the Fiordland natural wonder for various companies since the early 1970s and reckons he’s taken about 60,000 punters to Milford during 8,000 return trips.
One flight he’ll never forget is having former US astronaut Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon – aboard in the early 1980s.
“I thought a short trip to Milford Sound would be a bit of a ho-hum experience for him,” Bruce says. “I was wondering how on earth I could impress a guy who’s been to the moon and back.
“Afterwards Armstrong told me it was one of the best things he’d ever done in his life so it just shows you how good the trip really is.”
Both Bruce and Harrex were given a traditional farewell last month after finishing up with Real Journeys.
Firefighters at the airport sprayed their hoses in an arch across the runway for them to pass through when they landed on their final flights in the 10-seater, twin-engine planes.
But dad-of-two Bruce, who’s been with the company since 2002, is keen to get back in the air and working again “as soon as possible”.
He first took flying lessons at Canterbury Aero Club at the old Christchurch Airport – then known as Harewood – in 1956 aged 18.
After a short spell as a trainee air traffic controller, Bruce went on to become a commercial pilot co-flying 26-seat DC-3s on New Zealand domestic routes before piloting tourist flights for Mount Cook Airlines.
He shifted to Queenstown 40 years ago and has more than 20,000 flying hours under his belt. Bruce says he’s only ever had one minor mishap – when he unwittingly had to land on a flat tyre at the tiny Quinton Lodge airstrip near the Milford Track in 1993. But despite the craft ending up in a ditch, no one was hurt.
He also says he’s never been fazed by the Queenstown-Milford route which hugs 2500-metre-high mountaintops most of the way.
“Sometimes a bit of turbulence can make the odd passenger a bit scared,” he says. “But it’s not dangerous if you know what you’re doing.
“The biggest problem is the weather, which means pilots have to get constant forecasts and updates. Experience tells you when it’s good to go and when it’s not.”
Bruce’s former colleague Harrex, 69, retired in June – 50 years after first taking to the skies.
During his time, he reckons he’s performed about 13,000 takeoffs and landings.
Originally from Milton near Dunedin, the grandfather-of-five turned his back on farming to concentrate on agricultural flying.
He started piloting tourist flights in Queenstown in 2000 after six years doing the same in Wanaka.
Harrex is now a part-time bus driver in the Wakatipu.
He steers the familiar red tourist doubledecker from Queenstown to Arrowtown and also does shifts on regular Connectabus local passenger routes.
“It’s actually more dangerous being out on the roads than it is piloting a plane because you constantly have to look out for what other motorists are up to,” Harrex says.
“In all my years flying I never had a single accident. I did occasionally encounter a bit of engine trouble but always got down in one piece.”
Harrex adds: “Being a pilot was a great career and I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything.”