The Fly My Sky Story
How Commercial Helicopters Ltd, now trading as Fly My Sky (previously trading as Mountain Air) evolved is a compelling story of Kiwi doggedness, skill and a great deal of passion. This is the story of Keith McKenzie QSM and his love of the back blocks of New Zealand.
1966 - Helicopters Arrive in New Zealand
The story started in the 1960’s when New Zealanders were living with rigid Victorian rules and unrestrained hippie extremes. They were encountering Flower Power, Woodstock, Elvis, the Beatles and the Vietnam War. Youths were doing what they do when they flirt with drugs, war and death
The helicopter was a new phenomena in New Zealand it epitomized people’s fantasy of battle with its extremes, highs and excitement. This was where Keith McKenzie embarked on his first adventure of many, where he showed the first of his inspired determination to get to where he was going. Helicopter flight training did not exist in New Zealand back then.
He saved every penny from the money he earned delivering groceries on his two wheeled companion after school each day and would spend his weekends at Ardmore airport spending his money on lessons when he could afford, or watching planes circuit. Four hours it took him, to cycle from Mt Eden to Remuera, hop on a train to Papakura, then walk the final eight kilometers to the airport. The distance only hit home on the return journey.
Helicopters held an allure greater than the monetary cost involved to Keith, who having gained his wings set off for Melbourne to train rotary style. A large house in New Zealand vs. a helicopter license was the payoff – one that, with no responsibilities was easier to make.
At twenty years old he had his Commercial Pilot Licence and his Instructors Rating, by twenty-one a Commercial Helicopter Pilot Licence. Little did he know that in 30 years time he would be receiving a Queens Service Medal for his flying contributions to mountain search and rescue and various special police operations.
1970 - The Flying Doctor
The competition for helicopter pilot positions in Australia was fierce but Keith found himself a job flying on mineral explorations in the heat of the North West of Australia when he finished training and at the same time married Robyn a New Zealand Registered Nurse. She happily supported his dream, earning more than he did they both worked long hours to reduce the huge debt.
He liked life outback and passed the time on long, slow cross country flights chasing wild horses or emu, he was the very first helicopter cattle muster pilot in Australia. A later stint at Mt Isa during the floods of 1971 saw him flying the Flying Doctor and Robyn supporting the local hospital honing a vast array of outback nursing skills.
1971 - Helicopter Deer Shooting & Live Capture
Back in New Zealand in the early 1970’s the couple joined the growing helicopter deer shooting and helicopter live capture industry in the South Island. The industry was highly competitive and cut throat between helicopter crews trying to earn a living exporting deer meat to Germany.
Living out of a caravan in paddocks up and down the West Coast, tourist buses would stop on their journeys south to watch as Robyn washed their dishes and clothing in the Haast River. She went for the occasional ride, once inadvertently shooting a deer from the helicopter high in the Southern Alps. Having attached the deer to the chain under his chopper, she clung to the top of the deer’s body as they flew down into the valley to land. She remembers reflecting on her way, one chain, one chopper, one of the remotest areas of New Zealand, and one tiny jettison button under his right thumb! Fortunately the button is still intact forty-five years on.
After the deer contract ended he continued working out of the West Coast flying in and out of mining camps in the rugged West Coast ranges, where life was uncomplicated, the air clear and cold, and baths were out doors over an open fire. She returned to their Nelson base to focus on longer term projects, producing children, Scott and Suzanne.
1976 - The Hauraki Gulf Lighthouses
It was a decision to fly a bigger helicopter that finally moved the family north to the King country. With the family based in of a farm cottage in Otorohanga, he was off aerial spraying and transporting men and gear to off shore ships that were taking New Zealand iron sand to Japan for steel. He later flew to the oil rigs doing exploration drilling at sea around New Zealand’s coastline.
In 1977 he became James Aviation’s Chief Helicopter Pilot, based in Auckland. His love affair with the more remote areas grew when he flew between the off shore islands servicing the then manned light houses around Auckland and Northland. He mixed city flying with beach rescue.
He was going between stringing high tension power lines along the southern motorway to Huntly, placing air conditioning units in new down town Auckland high rise buildings and the beach. Ambulance helicopters started to be talked about, Keith went to the earliest meetings but the cost was too great for the community to fund and the idea was shelved for years.
1977 - Piha Surf Rescue
For five years the family spent summers at Piha Beach where he flew what was then called the Rothman’s Surf Rescue Helicopter Service. A summer tradition involved the life guard’s wives and girl friends jumping from the helicopter at the back of the Piha breakers. The ultimate draw for all the participants was the ride back to the beach on a chain under the helicopter wrapped closely in the arms of the well muscled life guard. Robyn, of course, would be asked to jump first to demonstrate her faith in the pilot and subsequent survival in the treacherous surf at the beach.
In 1977 Keith flew the first, very popular heli skiing trial at Mount Ruapehu. The helicopter would take off and land from the Bowling Green right in front of Chateau building causing much excitement with guests and staff alike. Almost 40 years later, the activity is still yet to be approved by Parks Boards as an appropriate activity within this New Zealand National Park.
By the end of 1980 the idea of returning to the country areas of the Tongariro National Park and Ruapehu District became a reality when his employer, James Aviation, closed their Taumarunui helicopter unit. The couple financed the purchase of the helicopter at an exorbitant 20% interest, the going rate in those days, rented an old house in a paddock on a farm on the edge of Taumarunui and went into business for themselves.
1987 - The Slump
The family worked every day to pay off the helicopter within a goal of five years which they managed just as the 1987 New Zealand financial balloon popped and the slump took hold. Whilst in a position where they had their own helicopter, there was no money about and people were not hiring helicopters. Once again Robyn changed her multiple skills job supporting the helicopter operation in administration and canvassing farmers for helicopter work, back to work in the local Taumarunui Hospital’s Operating Theatre.
His reputation grew as time went on. He built ski lifts on Ruapehu and The Remarkables and built and strung the high tension pylons between Stratford and Taumarunui. He shifted coal drilling rigs and bush caravans around Mokau and assisted with repairing the Bridge to Nowhere. For years he has been part of the long term plan to eradicate the noxious weed, Pinus Contorta, from the Tongariro National Park, requiring him to execute between 30 to 90 take-offs and landings every hour up to 6000 feet above sea level, over lapping groups of people around the mountain side to pull out the young trees.
1989 - The World Heritage Site
Environmental protection work with the Department of Conservation and the scientists of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences in both the Whanganui River National Park and the Tongariro National Park World Heritage Site inspired him to set up flightseeing in aeroplanes around the Parks in 1989. His aim was to give sightseers access to these remote and awesome volcanic landscapes. Photos: Three mountains and a Britten Norman Islander; Chateau Airfield where we operated.
1995 - Mt Ruapehu Erupts
The active volcano Mt Ruapehu erupted huge volumes of ash and mud between 1995 and 1997 attracting world wide attention. The volcanic activity in the mountains made people more aware and more curious about the three volcanoes dominating the Central North Island regions. Skiing was disrupted for three years, as was the Mountain Air schedule ski flight service between Auckland and the private airfield they developed at the base of Mt Ruapehu. The airfield continues to fly people from all over the world around the volcanoes, with the schedule flight now changed to an air charter service between Auckland and Mt Ruapehu.
People were always in a hurry when they came to New Zealand, thinking it was a small country and quick to get around. They passed by the Ruapehu District, choosing other more known areas instead. He decided to capture State Highway One and offer people an opportunity to fly around the mountains, getting aboard at one end and flying to the other, while some of them kept driving, all meeting up again at the same time. This doubled visitor’s opportunity to experience the volcanic activity and see a special World Heritage Site donated to New Zealand in 1878 by the Tu Wharetoa Maori Tribe of the area.
The elders of the Tu Wharetoa welcomed company, and would come at dawn to bless each new aircraft Fly My Sky (t/a Mountain Air) added to the fleet, giving each one a name of a hill or mountain in the area, like Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Pihanga. Each blessing was followed by a big Kiwi breakfast of bacon, eggs, fried potato, toast and jam … and if it was too wet for flying in the mountains, the obligatory port was handed around to officially seal the blessing.
On the 4th April 1997 the first daily flight connecting Ruapehu District and Auckland began after being delayed two years by volcanic eruptions. Continuing ash fall out dampening the spirit of Whakapapa skiiers pretty soon stopped the service.