Senior lives life with altitude Valley man flying high at 80
Neil McCabe took his first flying lesson at 64 years old and now he’s New Zealand’s second-oldest licensed helicopter pilot.
The Upper Hutt businessman turned 80 last week and he’s still flying high.
Mr McCabe said he was inspired to give it a go when he met prominent pilot Brett Emeny at a family funeral in New Plymouth.
‘‘We were talking and I told him ‘ I’d like to get my helicopter licence but I’m too old’,’’ he said.
‘‘Oh, you’re never too old to fly,’’ Mr Emeny said.
The following Monday Mr McCabe went to the Helipro office on Queen’s Wharf and said ‘‘ I want to fly’’.
His first training flight was in December 1998. At the time the Civil Aviation Authority had a more rigorous medical policy for older pilots and he experienced some early difficulties, but the policy relaxed and he passed his licence in 1999 at 65.
Mr McCabe bought his own helicopter, a Robinson R22, and it was a sensitive topic in his home.
He told his wife just a few days before it was due to be delivered.
He flies for pleasure and for some personal business travel for his plastics moulding company.
He has had excursions to Ashburton, Hokitika, Blenheim and Taihape. He regularly flies to Nelson, where his aircraft is serviced every 50 flying hours.
‘‘One of the problems of helicopter flying is that you need good weather,’’ he said.
Several consecutive days of good weather around Wellington is a fairly rare occurrence, particularly over Cook Strait, so sometimes he has to be prepared to leave his aircraft behind and travel home some other way.
Mr McCabe’s friend Maurice Wooster, also a helicopter pilot, takes an interest in his flying.
‘‘He doesn’t just fly in circles around here,’’ he said.
‘‘That involves him in flying into other airports and learning different controls.’’
Mr McCabe said he found that kept his brain active.
Flying aircraft was just a small part of a pilot’s duties. Maintaining the machine is a big part, and so is the paperwork.
He will know when it is time to stop, he said.
Helicopter-piloting was not his first foray into flight.
In 1955, Mr McCabe and a friend assembled an Americandesigned gyrocopter.
‘‘We had a couple of tethered flights and we had a couple of incidents, and we broke a couple of sets of blades, and we both gave it away,’’ he said.
‘‘It wasn’t until that meeting up in New Plymouth that I got interested again.’’
Aging with attitude: Eighty-year-old helicopter pilot Neil McCabe at the controls of his Robinson R22 over the Hutt Valley. Inset: Neil McCabe.