'Couldn't be happier in Queenstown': Retired aircraft engineer Tom Mulqueen

Starting his working life, aged 16, in an engineering shop, Tom Mulqueen ended up looking after an aircraft fleet in New Caledonia.  That link also led to him holidaying, then retiring, in Queenstown. He talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about his life — and his near-drowning on the West Coast

Tap a lot of retired Queenstowners on the shoulders and there’s no end to the interesting careers they’ve had.

How about being an aircraft engineer for almost 40 years in a remote corner of French-speaking New Caledonia?

That was the final career path for 77-year-old Tom Mulqueen, who only retired four years ago, which is when he also took up skiing.

Born in Mosgiel, he went to nine schools as his parents moved around farms for work.

At 16, in Ashburton, he started in a general engineering shop before getting into aircraft maintenance at its airport.

About three years later he upped stakes with his company to the Taieri Aerodrome, then later to Dunedin’s airport where he ended up as the firm’s South Island manager.

He was involved in rebuilding helicopters and planes, and became very busy at the height of the deer recovery boom.

On one mid-winter chopper mission to the West Coast, in which he was a passenger, his pilot made a mistake and flew into Lake Brunner.

‘‘Both of us survived, but we very nearly didn’t.’’

The company supplied helicopters and planes to the Montagnat family’s nickel-mining operation in New Caledonia, which decided to employ a Kiwi aircraft engineer.

Mulqueen took the job after his equivalent North Island manager, who’d been offered it first, took another posting instead.

He and his wife Karen and their kids Amanda, then 8, and Liam, 6, relocated in ‘78 to the isolated mining village of Ouinne.

It was accessible only by air, or a five-hour trip by boat to Noumea.

Mulqueen’s job, essentially, was maintaining the Montagnats’ five planes and four helicopters.

When the company pilots left, he assumed the flying load as well, shifting drilling rigs around mountain sites, doing aerial prospecting, and also bringing in groceries.

He estimates he notched up almost 11,000 flying hours between fixed-wing and rotary-wing craft.

In the ‘80s, he and Karen, whom he’d married in ‘68, bought a Queenstown section owned by the Montagnats, in Suburb Street, and built a holiday home on it.

When they’d arrived in Ouinne, it had about 200 people at the height of the first nickel boom.

When that dropped to about 10, Karen started spending about six months a year in Queenstown.

Mulqueen says the main flying hazard there was the weather — ‘‘it’s like living in Milford Sound, it rains heaps’’.

A bonus was being granted French nationality.

In later years he worked alongside his son Liam, who’s now effectively taken over his dad’s job.

Meantime, he and Karen sold their Queenstown house after a neighbour blocked their views, and built at Arthurs Point where their large section overlooks the Shotover River.

In his retirement — though he occasionally helps at Air Milford — he’s taken up skiing at the urging of his daughter Amanda, who owns local cafe, Habebes.

‘‘The first month I’m sure I spent more on physio than on food, I was black and blue.

‘‘I make no claim to be the fastest skier on Coronet Peak but I go down most of the runs.

‘‘There are a lot of skiers up there older than me, but most of them have been skiing for 50 years.’’

He also has a collection of classic cars including a TR3 Triumph which he’s driven in rallies, Liam’s newly-restored TR6 and a BMW 125M.

For a wedding anniversary he also gifted Karen a Citroen 2CV Charleston which they regularly drive around town in.

Mulqueen says he couldn’t be happier living in Queenstown.

‘‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s a day goes by when I don’t wake up and think it’s a privilege to live here.

‘‘There’s a lot of grumblings go on, ‘Queenstown is not the way it used to be’, and it isn’t.

“Fifty years ago we weren’t 70, either.’’