Saturday, 20 July 2019


"Aviation has been good to me"

It seems Keith Skilling was born to fly. He’s been at it for the last 52 years and shows no signs of stopping just yet. He slowed down a little for sure in recent times, but the head and eyes are most definitely tilted towards the skies.

The seed was sown when Keith’s father flew Lancaster bombers during the Second World War, so it was almost like handing over the baton when Keith joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force straight from school in 1966.

During his dozen years in the Air Force, Keith, who was born in Christchurch but now resides in Whitianga, graduated as a pilot and went on to fly a number of aircraft, including the Dakota, Hercules and Bristol freighters. There was also a spell of instructing on the Harvard trainer. His final posting was as commanding officer of No 1 Andover Squadron before departing the Air Force to join Air New Zealand.  

Flying for a commercial airline was an obvious big change from the Air Force and the planes Keith flew during his 34 years of service also changed significantly over time. He finished up as a flight instructor and a captain of the Boeing 777 fleet, an aircraft he trained on at the Boeing factory in Seattle. Flying the fourth 777 to be added to the Air New Zealand fleet at the time back to Auckland counts among his accolades. Prior to flying the 777 were stints on the Fokker Friendship F27 and other members of the Boeing family, including the 767 and 747.

Keith was stationed in Singapore with No 41 Squadron during the Vietnam War, flying troops into and out of Vietnam at the controls of a Bristol freighter. “Those ground troops and helicopter pilots were the real heroes of that conflict in my view,” says Keith. “Our job was to fly in and out from Singapore as quickly as possible, so we were there for short spells only. Risky yes, but we didn’t have the potential for day-to-day combat that others had who were stationed on the ground.”  

Being entirely passionate about aviation, there’s more to Keith’s flying than a career in the Air Force and with Air New Zealand.

In 1979, the New Zealand Warbirds Association was formed with Keith becoming a foundation member. The Warbirds Association, which is based at Ardmore Airport south of Auckland, is dedicated to the restoration, preservation and operation of ex-Air Force aircraft. The association offers an opportunity for some keen enthusiasts to join forces and share in the ownership and upkeep of these planes. The association was originally conceived to preserve ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force aircraft only, but has been expanded by the introduction of ex-Air Force aircraft from all over the world, including Russian, German, US and British types.

It wasn’t long before Keith became both the chief flying instructor for the Warbirds Association and the test pilot. When a restoration was complete and a former WWI or WWII plane was deemed ready to take to the skies once again often after years of inactivity, Keith would be the one to assume the controls. He was lucky enough to test fly the first two Mosquitos restored at Ardmore and flew the first one over Whitianga in 2013.

Air shows were another great love of Keith, not watching but participating. He has been involved with the famous Wanaka air show since its inception in 1988, which began a lifelong friendship with the founder of the show, Sir Tim Wallis. He has also been part of the Warbirds formation aerobatic team which was formed in 1979. They call themselves the Roaring Forties and can be seen at air shows right across New Zealand and Australia flying ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force Harvard trainers. “The team continue to honour those who ensured our freedom through their service in the armed forces by carrying out fly-pasts on ANZAC Day and days commemorating the Battle of Britain,” says Keith.
But it’s on the world stage where Keith really showed his talents in the art of aerobatic flying. He spent five years, from 1999 to 2004, with the Breitling Fighters Team in the UK, where he flew classic planes in more than 700 displays in thirteen different countries to an audience of millions “Breitling is a watch company with a slogan that says ‘Obsession With Precision,’ which was a perfect fit for our four-man aerobatic team,” says Keith. “It was a truly brilliant experience.”

We suggested that Keith must have experienced at least one unforgettable and hair-raising incident in the air and indeed there was. “I was flying a replica 1915 WWI plane from France back to England around three years ago and had just cleared the White Cliffs of Dover when the engine started to miss-fire,” says Keith. “It eventually failed completely, leaving me looking for a place to make an emergency landing. I was lucky enough to find a suitable paddock and made something of a successful landing. Problem was the plane finished upside down with me trapped inside.

“It was a scary experience because these planes have wooden frames covered with basically a linen cloth, so catching fire was a real risk. Thankfully I managed to crawl out uninjured. That was to be the end of my career flying WWI replicas.”      

So what does a former Air Force, long haul and aerobatic pilot do in his spare time? Fly of course. Keith currently owns a Cessna 180. “The big appeal for somebody like me to reside in Whitianga is pretty obvious,” he says. “I have my own hangar at the Whitianga Airport and my partner and I more often than not fly to where we want to go instead of driving. We’re in discussions with friends about an aerial version of a car road trip from Cape Reinga to Bluff, which we hope to do in 2020.”   

Summing up his life in the air, Keith simply says, “Aviation has been good to me.” That’s an understatement. He should add, “Been there, done all of that and still loving it.”

Pictured: Whitianga resident, Keith Skilling, is a former Royal New Zealand Air Force, Air New Zealand long haul and Breitling Fighters aerobatic pilot.



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