High Flyer

By Ryan Willoughby

Preston Wilson set his sights on a career in aviation early, but the route to captaining his first commercial flight took a few twists and turns.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” Captain Preston Wilson says. “My uncle took me flying when I was eight or nine and I felt somewhat queasy by the end of the flight, but I was hooked.” After getting his Private Pilot Licence at Bridge Pa Aerodrome in Hawke’s Bay in 1986, Captain Wilson tried enlisting with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. But he was turned down because his eyesight was not up to the required standard.

He decided that pinning all his hopes on one career might be unwise. His back-up plan came in the form of a four-year Bachelor of Technology majoring in manufacturing at Massey’s Manawatu – campus. Unfortunately for Captain Wilson, Massey’s School of Aviation had yet to open.

“Back then I thought I enjoyed engineering, but I figured out through my degree that I wasn’t much good at it. I don’t regret anything. Aged 18 I was too young to go flying professionally. Getting that life experience was really important. I was always thinking of aviation, but I needed something to fall back on.

“Massey gave me a set of tools, and it gave me a method of learning – the ability to knuckle down and get stuff done when it needs to be done. Another benefit was the friends I had when I was at Massey. We all went to London at a similar time. We’re still mates.”

Once graduated, Captain Wilson began working at New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter at Ti -wai Point, Southland. After that job, he decided to do something that interested him more: computing. “It was literally the making of me.” He worked on meat processing software for freezing works in both the South and the North Islands – lots of responsibilities, delivering projects on time, and a continued focus on learning new skills and techniques. “I would have stayed but the time came for me to take the big OE.”

The young man from Havelock North jumped on a plane for London. After contracting in the IT industry for three years, his wife suggested it was time to realise his dream of flying. He signed up as a cadet pilot with British Midland in 1998, completed 18 months of training, and first flew the Airbus A320 in February 2000. “I spent six very enjoyable years flying around Europe and the United Kingdom, learning my craft as an airline pilot.”

In 2006 he joined British Airways as a first officer on the Boeing 777, flying long-haul routes. “Some of the sights we saw were amazing, around the world, and from 35,000 feet, but wanting to be home more often drew me back to the short-haul world.”

He’s been a British Airways captain since 2015, based at London Gatwick. “Being the commander brings a different mindset in terms of getting people from departure to destination safely, efficiently and on time. I really enjoy the day-to-day work of both flying and managing planes.

“Teamwork (an overused phrase, sometimes) is literally at the hub of what we do; no one person could ever get a commercial aircraft to fly on their own.”

He is still drawn back to Massey thanks to Massey University Foundation director Mitch Murdoch, who met Captain Wilson in their university days. He now serves on the board of the UK  Friends of Massey, a charitable trust for those looking to donate to Massey researchers and students.

Returning to the Manawatu – campus some 27 years after leaving, he recalls, “I always enjoyed the campus, with the trees and park-like surroundings. It seemed a pleasant contrast to and break from lecture theatres and science laboratories, which I think helped my learning.”

Never fazed

As a young Māori woman, Tabitha Winiata stood out at last year’s graduation ceremonies with her beautiful korowai and the gold Wings brevet pinned to her robes – the brevet showing she had attained her commercial pilot’s licence. The Bachelor of Aviation graduate was a rarity in a programme of mainly male students.

Winiata, Te Arawa, Ngāti Tamaterā, told Māori Television she was never fazed by being part of such a small minority group.

“It’s nearly unheard of,” she said. “But I was really lucky that a couple of the girls who I started my course with were actually Māori and female, and doing aviation just like me. They’ve been really good role models.”

Winiata was the first in her family to graduate with a university degree, despite originally going to her school careers adviser to find out about becoming a flight attendant.

“The adviser said, ‘You’re too smart for that, you need to broaden your horizons.’ She got me some trial flights up in Hamilton, and from the first take-off I was so hooked I couldn’t do anything but think of aviation.”

She’s now hoping to establish a career as a commercial pilot and would love to see more young Māori women choosing tertiary education