Queenstown mourns high-flying pair

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The Queenstown community is reeling following the deaths of two of the resort’s identities during a reconnaissance flight in a glider in Namibia.

Arrowtown developer David Speight, 72, and engineer Bill Walker, 66, who lived on Ladies Mile, died early on Monday, New Zealand time, about 50km from Namibia’s gliding base.

It is believed the pair were in a two-seater glider at the time.

A joint statement released by the men’s families said it was understood they died on impact.

Gliding New Zealand president Karen Morgan, of Balclutha, says: “The centre of our world has gone.”

Morgan says the two men were her neighbours at Omarama’s glider hangar.

“I had Bill on one wing and Davy on our tail – so for me, personally, it’s going to be an enormous loss of two of our closest friends.”

She describes Speight, of Arrowtown, as “the loveliest man”, always cheerful and helping others, while Walker was “a smiley, careful fellow” and one of the greatest visionaries in gliding.

“He and Dave have always been prepared to do more than just suggest what should happen – they’ve got in, they’ve got it done, they’ve given money for it,” Morgan said.

Walker was considering the airfield’s future evolution right up to last week. 

Shotover Engineering owner Nigel Davy, a Gliding NZ executive committee member, says no service or tribute was being planned until the bodies had been returned to New Zealand.

“That could potentially be a week to two.”

The gliding community has been hit hard by the news.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to is just gutted by it,” he said.

Both men had attempted to set world gliding records – and had succeeded.

Walker held three, including a 1261.36km round-trip between Bannockburn and Gisborne in December 1989, while Mr Speight set a straight distance record of 1254.28km in January 1978.

Davy says the pair were pivotal to the establishment of the Five Rivers-based Southland club, of which they were both members, and Walker designed and built the winch used for launching at Five Rivers, which was now in Omarama – “an iconic piece of Bill Walker machinery”. 

Speight first learned to glide at Taieri Plain, near Dunedin, in 1959, while Walker began gliding in the early 1970s and was intrinsically involved in the development of Omarama Airfield.

That led to the World Gliding Championships being held in Omarama in 1995, one of Mr Walker’s “proudest moments”, the family statement said.

The Glide Omarama website says development began in 1991 for the world championships.

“Bill Walker and his team of heroes transformed a deserted dust bowl into an irrigated airfield with grass, trees, hangars, tie-downs, chalets and a camping ground.

“It was this action that enabled a truly international soaring site to emerge at Omarama,” the website says.

Speight, who originally farmed Southland’s Tower Peak Station, was a founding trustee of Gliding NZ’s Umbrella Trust, established to use the money donated to gliding over the years to help younger pilots learn to fly.

“Dave was really pleased to be part of that initial group,” Morgan said.

“He’s just retired recently from that. Bill would have been a logical person to follow.”

Former Queenstown glider pilot Nick Reekie was mentored by both men and said Walker – owner of E-Type Engineering in Invercargill, which opened a second base in Christchurch last year – helped United States billionaire Steve Fossett with logistics in Omarama during his failed attempt at an altitude record.

Reekie says the men are “obsessive enthusiasts” of youth gliding to ensure young people continued to become involved in the sport.

He says it was “like a family”, where successes were celebrated and failures felt – both men made young pilots feel better about the latter.

“When I would land in paddocks all over the South Island when I was first starting, [Mr Walker] would encourage me – he’d … say, ‘Don’t worry, you can pull up your socks and next time you’ll be better’ …

“They would both be like, ‘next time’ and ‘we’ve all done it, and we’ve all learnt and we’ve all been there’.

“When you go to Omarama and you go flying and have a few beers, if you don’t see one of those two guys, it’s not a good day.”

Reekie describes Walker as “an enthusiast par excellence”; “a legend” and “a giver”.

“There’s not enough fellows like this in the world,” Reekie said.

Lakes District Museum director David Clarke says Speight was a respected member of the Arrowtown community, both as a businessman and supporter.

He was an avid art collector, a keen golfer and, along with Speight, established the Speight Gardens at their Speargrass Flat property.

The New Zealand High Commission Pretoria is providing consular advice and support to the families of both men, who said they were “devastated to lose such wonderful men and experienced pilots”.

“We would like to thank our family and friends and especially the extended gliding fraternity for their support.”

Otago Daily Times