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The father-and-son helicopter pilots who helped fight the Nelson wildfires

Third-generation helicopter pilot Toby Reid (right) with his father, Bill – now one of Toby’s employees.

As thousands fled the fierce wildfires that ripped across Nelson last summer, Bill and Toby Reid were flying towards the flames. Fiona Terry talks to the father-and-son helicopter pilots about spending life in the air.

Helicopter pilot Toby Reid was fighting a blaze in Blenheim when news came of another fire closer to home – in Pigeon Valley, just a few kilometres from his family’s farm in Wakefield. By the time he arrived at the scene, it was already burning out of control. 

“It became intense very quickly,” he says. “The speed at which it was moving was quite daunting and the wind, dryness and lack of humidity added to the danger. It was evident it was going to be one of the largest fires I’d ever seen.”

Toby wasted no time requesting support, including an urgent call to his father, Bill, who he’s employed since setting up Reid Helicopters with pilot wife Rachael in 2007. Bill was away in Wellington and couldn’t get a flight home till the next morning. As the plane approached Nelson, still flying above the clouds, he knew it didn’t bode well when he could smell smoke in the cabin. “I’ve fought many fires over the years but never one of this severity,” Bill says. “And never one so close to home.”

The blaze, believed to have been caused in the tinder-dry conditions by a spark from agricultural equipment, was fanned by southerly winds, sending a vast plume of smoke across the region. At night, the glow could be seen from Nelson city, more than 30km away.

On 6 February, the day after the fire broke out, a state of emergency was declared. The blaze would eventually sweep across 2300ha; thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and 23 helicopters were involved in what would become New Zealand’s largest aerial firefight.

Toby and his team shared the load, working shifts to ensure each had time away to rest. “It was incredible to be part of something that big and by the end of each break, you’d be really ready to get back up in the air,” says Bill. “The conditions were very intense, flying through smoke, dealing with soaring temperatures... Sometimes as a pilot you’re so close to the source you have to turn your face away from the heat, and it’s experience that helps you judge how close you can get without it melting something.”

Toby in action as wildfires burned above Nelson in February. A total of 23 helicopters were involved in what became New Zealand’s largest aerial firefight.

Fighting fires, especially from the air, inevitably has its dangers. Almost exactly two years before, helicopter pilot and former SAS member Steve Askin crashed and died while fighting Christchurch’s Port Hills fire, leaving behind his wife and two young children. But the risks involved in flying helicopters are something the Reid dynasty has learnt to live with.

Bill’s father, John, flew fighter planes in World War II and was a pioneer of the New Zealand helicopter industry, founding his Nelson-based company Helicopters NZ in the 1950s. It was still operating when Bill and wife Robyn set up their own business, Nelson Helicopters, in 1983. “There were a few years when it was a bit tense being in competition, until he retired,” says Bill, who’d been a “hangar-rat” as a kid. “It was pretty cool having a father who was flying helicopters, but we were even more impressed he’d been a fighter pilot!”

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Robyn ran the business from the ground. She received the inaugural Director of Civil Aviation Award for her work in furthering safety in the industry, and in 2016 was inducted into the Business Hall of Fame by the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce.

Toby and younger sister Amelia (nicknamed Sos) were involved from an early age, flying with their parents and helping out in the hangar. Toby was 19 when he qualified as a commercial pilot. Rachael had qualified at the same age, and the couple went into business together within months of meeting each other. (Amelia, now 33, has a successful acting career, including six years on Shortland Street as receptionist Bella Durville.)

Tragically, Robyn died of cancer in 2017. But Toby, having built a house next to his parents’ on the farm in Wakefield, is grateful his mother was able to get to know his own hangar-rats, Ollie, now six, and Russ, who’s just turned five. It was also from this base that Bill – helped by Robyn and Toby – embarked on an 11-year project to restore what is now the world’s only airworthy Avro Anson Mk 1 bomber, housed at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim.

In his 2004 book Born to Fly, Bill tells the story of the Reid family’s three trail-blazing generations, with their sense of adventure, enterprise and courage. 

Bill Reid with father John and son Toby at Patons Rock Beach, north of Tākaka, in 2004.

Bill, 66

“I’ve flown at a few fires alongside Toby, but Pigeon Valley’s was the first time we’ve been at a really serious event together. We were flying in the same circuit alongside each other – I just felt so proud. I get quite emotional just thinking about it.

I know there are risks, but you can’t dwell on them and I don’t worry about him; you’d go nuts if you did. You have to trust, and I always know he does the right thing. I’m also reassured that he looks after the helicopters. The maintenance on the fleet is first class. He and Rach have got really good engineers, keep the helicopters immaculate, and don’t push the weather like we once used to.

Toby was in a helicopter at a few days old. We’d just moved to the farm and there was a flood, so the only option was to fly to Nelson hospital for his check-up.

Robyn loved business and anything to do with it, and fortunately Toby’s picked that up from her. I’m proud he took a little bit from both of us.

As a kid, he’d hang out with me in the hangar. Sos, too. They’d ride bikes around as we worked, and it’s the same now with his boys, Ollie and Russ. We’d be contracted to fly skiers to the Nelson Lakes National Park and all go as a family. Sometimes, Toby would get me to drop him above Rainbow Ski Field, then he’d ski down and catch the bus home. 

He was a cheerful kid, always a leader, but not bossy with his friends like he was with his sister! He went through quite a shy stage in his teens, whereas Amelia was the opposite. Through school, he was very musical and sports mad, totally into basketball and wanted to be an NBA player. He never got into trouble – he was too busy training.

Bill with Toby & Amelia, in front of his company Nelson Helicopters’ Hughes 500D, 1987.

When he sets his mind on something, he holds focus on it. He was in the New Zealand under-18s basketball team and travelled overseas with them. He really was heading in the right direction, until he had a stress fracture in his leg. If there was ever an unhappy period in Toby’s life, it was probably then. I could empathise because I was picked for the Olympic Games equestrian squad for the 1976 Montréal Games but broke my ankle just before, which put me out of the team.

Toby went to England when he was 18 to drive tractors instead, then worked in aircraft restoration in Australia. It was around that time we started work on the Avro. Doing it up together was pretty special; he had come with me to disassemble it in Australia and ended up returning to New Zealand to help. Then he got the helicopter bug.

We never pushed our two into any career, especially not aviation. My father didn’t with me, maybe because of the safety aspect, maybe the stress, and I had to convince him that was the path I wanted to take.

Dad was really chuffed, though, when Toby went into the industry, too, and it was quite a moment for me. It's difficult for anyone under the age of 25 to 30 to break in, but he’s been successful – way more than I was at 35, when we had only one helicopter. They’re operating four in peak season.

When I’m working with him, it’s quite a different relationship. He’s very strict – I have to toe the line. He knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. You have to be strong with people around helicopters, though. The potential for someone to do something silly is always there.

He calls me Bill, even my grandkids do. I’ve always liked that, and what we have is more like a friendship and a mutual respect between pilots. Sometimes we agree to differ; we certainly don’t agree on everything but we can usually nut it out and one will usually come around to the other’s way of thinking.

I really admire him and he’s amazing as a father. I sometimes feel guilty that when [he and Amelia] were young, I probably wasn’t as good with them as he is with the boys. He makes time for them and they’ve got a fantastic relationship. I hope I’m making up for it by being a good grandfather. The greatest gift from Toby is those grandsons. I’m very fortunate to live next door. I’m just so proud of him. That’s hard to keep saying, and maybe I don’t do it enough.”

Toby plays with the helicopter controls at just a few months of age, propped up by his father’s helmet.

Toby, 35

“I remember as a kid flying around, sitting alongside Bill and him showing me how to turn all the switches off once we’d got to our destination.

He’s a patient man, always has been. He was very cool, calm and collected, rarely getting frustrated or heated. I’d see him arrive back from rescues and he’d be just the same.

Dad says I was about nine when I took the controls, with him alongside. I’d spent so much time in the chopper by then, I’d picked things up. Mum and Dad were so busy working that Amelia and I were just part of that, going off in the helicopter for work as a family. But we certainly had fun. My boys now are just as involved. They come out on jobs and sometimes I wish they knew it’s an opportunity most kids don’t have. They don’t realise how lucky they are.

I think I wanted to be a pilot from a young age. You can’t be around it for so long and not get attached to the industry. There was never any expectation, though. Mum was the CEO and a clever business lady, and I’ve picked up her business skills. Dad passed down the practical skills and appreciation of equipment. The Reids have always been known for clean, well-maintained equipment, and I’m really proud to keep up the family tradition. We have technology now to track the helicopters constantly, which Dad wouldn’t have had in the earlier years, but even as a kid I never worried about his safety. Flying was just what he did.

Mum and Dad were always supportive of my choices in life. I was gutted to have to give up basketball, but they encouraged me to think, ‘Righto, what now?’ That’s when I went abroad, but the turning point back towards aviation was helping Bill with the Anson. That was a really great time with him.

Robyn Reid speaks after receiving her Hall of Fame award from the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce in 2016, with Amelia and Toby seated to her left.

I’d taken some flying lessons and got my aeroplane licence in Australia, and I was about 19 when I got my commercial helicopter licence – around the time Mum and Dad were selling their company – but I went to work overseas again. The generations have never handed down the businesses; we all set up independently. Watching how Mum and Dad built things up and persevered, how hard they’d worked, helped in my approach to business. I’m just fortunate Rachael has a similar philosophy towards hard work.

Now Bill works for me, there’s more of a professional relationship, too. He’s very helpful because he’s so experienced as a pilot, but he doesn’t get involved with running the company.

I didn’t appreciate what Mum and Dad achieved until I experienced it myself. And now Russ and Ollie are doing all the things I used to. I love having them around and coming flying. Dad and I are similar like that.

It was definitely important to us to live near to Mum and Dad with the boys, and still living alongside Bill on the farm here means he gets to spend time with them, which is great.

Now I can see I had a pretty interesting and amazing childhood, full of both independence and guidance at the same time. I asked Russ recently what he wanted to do when he’s older and he said, ‘Fly choppers.’ Ollie would probably say he won’t, but I’m sure he will always have a keen interest. It’s pretty hard for them to not feel comfortable in a helicopter when they’re in them so much; it’s just like hopping in a car.”

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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