New MBAS aircraft to be a regular sight in the skies above Whitianga

19 Oct 2021

New MBAS aircraft to be a regular sight in the skies above Whitianga

When Mercury Bay Area School’s current plane-build project is complete, the aircraft will be a regular sight in the skies above Whitianga, having been purchased by the town’s most prominent business personality. 

Leigh Hopper, the architect of the Whitianga Waterways development, is buying the $170,000 Van’s RV12 two-seater plane by way of progress payments and will take delivery when it is ready to fly in about 18 months’ time. “I intend to keep the aircraft here and I enjoy the notion of owning and flying an aircraft that has been built here locally by the school,” he told The Informer.

The school’s partnership with the Mercury Bay Aero Club to build the kitset planes is unique in New Zealand and currently the Mercury Bay Student Aviation Trust is working on its fifth plane since the programme was first mooted by well-known local pilot, Jim Evans, several years ago. 

Trust secretary and treasurer, Patrick Pfister, the IT operations manager at MBAS, said Leigh’s involvement was “brilliant” for the programme. “For us, it is really fantastic to have such a personality, who has had such an impact on the development of the town for the past decade or two, to invest in our youth and the mentors from the Aero Club as well.”

Leigh, 66, who has been flying since he was 15, holds both fixed wing and helicopter licences. His Airbus AS350 six-seater helicopter is regularly seen over Whitianga, but Leigh said he needed to increase his flying hours to keep up his fixed wing licence as well. “The best way to do that is to have something to fly that you can access easily. I have a hangar out at the airfield and I will probably keep [the Van’s RV12] in the hangar where I keep the helicopter.”

Leigh said he had known of the trust’s plane-build project, initiated by the late Jim Evans, someone he knew from “way back”. “It is a good programme and I am very impressed by the efforts of those involved. They initiated a new-build and were seeking an underwriter or a purchaser, so I stepped up and said I was happy to buy the build that they had already initiated and we have entered into an arrangement to build the plane over the ensuing 18 months.”

Leigh has a lot of admiration for what they were doing at the school. “It is a good, local programme, unique really, and it is embraced by the school, by the teachers, by the kids and the locals as well. They are generating quite a good reputation,” he said.

“It is a beautiful little aircraft, inexpensive to own with a low operating cost. They are doing a great job and I am very impressed by the craftsmanship they are putting into this build.”

Leigh would not be working hands-on with the group of MBAS students as he could not find the time in his busy business schedule, but would pop down to check out progress when he could. He recently took the students for a flight in his helicopter to show his appreciation and also to perhaps encourage them to continue to be involved with some form of aviation in the future. “If you expose young minds to the possibilities, that might engender some dreams and aspirations,” he said.

Leigh said that Whitianga was very fortunate to have a significant airfield so close to town with such an active aero club that had carried out a lot of expansion and development over the years, including nearly 50 hangars either built or in the process of being completed. “It would have to be one of the most progressive clubs in the country and that will continue in the future, as Whitianga is a very attractive destination for pilots to retire to or to visit.”

In addition, Hopper Developments is in the process of planning more residential airfield frontage sections for people with aircraft as part of a deal signed with the Mercury Bay Aero Club many years ago whereby Hoppers provided land for the airfield to be extended and future-proofed in return for airfield access for the adjoining residential subdivision.

Hoppers’ Waterways development, which was first conceived in 1996, covers around 220ha of land and, when complete, will comprise around 1,400 homes, including a retirement village. Landholdings had to be acquired, major structural plans had to be developed to incorporate a system of canals on the flat land behind Whitianga town and a bypass had to be built as well

A report from Motu Economics of Wellington noted that Whitianga came top in the country for “quality of life” a couple of years ago. “That has been part of our mission, to create New Zealand’s top coastal township focusing on superior lifestyle,” Leigh said.

Pictured - Leigh Hopper, purchaser of the aircraft that is currently being built by a group of Mercury Bay Area School students, at the first Van’s RV12 plane the school has built.