Meet the pilots of Air Rarotonga
| Appeared in Escape Magazine, July 2017 |
As a boy growing up on Mangaia, an island inhabited by about 600 people, Daniel Ngatokorua loved watching the planes. Every time Air Rarotonga’s 15-passenger Bandeirante approached, he looked up and thought about the world beyond and the machine that could take him there.
“When you’re from a tiny little island with just a few vehicles,” Ngatokorua says now, countless flights later, “flying planes seems like a good idea.”
In his last year of high school, he travelled to Rarotonga for a career fair and was offered an opportunity to shadow some pilots on the job. Feeling inspired, he put his CV in his bag, walked up the stairs to Air Rarotonga’s administrative offices, and asked to see chief pilot Munro Hockin.
Munro appeared and asked how he could help.
“Hello,” the 17-year-old replied. “I’d like to apply for a job as a pilot.”
“I thought what’s this fella laughing at me for? I’ve got my documentation here,” Ngatokorua recalls now, with great amusement. “Small island thinking. I didn’t know any better. Munro explained you don’t just become a pilot, you’ve actually got to go to school to learn something.”
Among Air Rarotonga’s points of pride is that its pilots – and engineers – are homegrown. All of the airline’s current pilots are Cook Islanders, and nearly all of them grew up in the islands, watching and wondering at the planes that arrived from bigger and busier worlds. Their intrigue led them through the rigours of flying school overseas and back to Rarotonga to train under the strict tutelage of Munro Hockin, who came to the Cook Islands in 1979 to teach flying and three years later became a partner in Air Rarotonga.
Over the years, Hockin has groomed more than two dozen Cook Islands pilots. Some are still with the airline after three decades; others have gone on to fly for corporate airlines around the world. Most trace the origins of their passion to the other side of the chain-link fence at the Rarotonga Airport.
“Anytime Air New Zealand would bring in a big airplane at three in the morning, Mum and Dad would wake us up and we’d go watch the 747 land,” says Donald Guinea, now a pilot for Cathay Pacific and certified trainer for the Boeing 777. “I remember standing there on those nights, watching the plane and thinking, I want to fly one of those one day.”
Iain Howard, now a pilot for New Zealand’s Air Nelson, became obsessed with the idea of flying for Air Rarotonga when he was a kid at Avatea School, not far from the airport. He drew pictures of planes in his exercise books and at home he jumped off the roof with a lilo to simulate, if briefly, the feeling of flying.
“For as long as I can remember, flying an airplane from Rarotonga to Aitutaki was my dream job,” he says. “When I saw the planes, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
In its early days, the company employed expatriate pilots.
When Kiwi pilot Ewan Smith and aircraft engineer Ian Rhodes partnered with a local couple to set up Air Rarotonga, they had only Cessnas, big enough for four passengers and one pilot.
To captain a plane without a co-pilot requires a wealth of flying experience and in those days, Kevin Crocombe was the only Cook Islander who had been trained to fly commercial airplanes.
“At the time it was something that no Cook Islanders were really into,” says Sean Willis, who began flying for Air Rarotonga in 1986. “But when Kevin went for training in New Zealand and came back I thought, well, maybe I can do that.”
Around the time Willis did his training, Air Rarotonga acquired a plane with space for 15 people and two pilots, giving locals a chance to log hours of experience from the co-pilot’s seat.
Still they confronted – and continue to confront – an age-old pilot’s dilemma: you need experience to get a job and a job to get experience.
“It’s the whole chicken and egg thing,” Howard explains. “One of the ways you can build that experience is to become an instructor in New Zealand and that’s a tough road, doing the instructing, because you aren’t paid much and in many instances you aren’t paid anything. Having to figure out a way to build your hours – it just tests how much you want it.”
To fly for Air Rarotonga, you have to really want it.
Locals go overseas to complete their training for a PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence) and their CPL (Commercial Pilot’s Licence) – certification they need before they can even begin logging hours of experience.
Most go to New Zealand. It makes little sense to set up a flying school in the Cook Islands because students must learn to fly over land before they can fly over water, and the Cook Islands is mostly water.
But going away to school (and paying for it) does not guarantee a job at Air Rarotonga, an airline with limited openings and minimal movement. Still, for those who grew up dreaming about flying in the Cook Islands, it’s worth the risk.
“Most of the guys who study aviation stay in New Zealand and become instructors because that’s the only job available,” Guinea tells me over the phone from a busy diner in Hong Kong, where he’s been based for more than 20 years. “But I knew I had to take the risk and return to the Cooks. The day after my last exam I jumped on a plane and came back to Raro – I knew there was a very small chance I could get a job.”
Ngatokorua worked for nearly two years managing Air Rarotonga’s cargo shed before he had a chance to fly to other islands. Today, 12 years later, he flies the Saab 340, a 34-passenger plane. Robert Mackenzie worked at the check-in desk for four years before he began flying airplanes for Air Rarotonga; today, 22 years later, he’s a Qantas captain.
Ianis Boaza was working on the police patrol boat when he began dreaming of flying the planes he saw traversing Cook Islands waters. He quit his job and took out a loan to pay for flying school.
“I handed over all my money, the most money I’d had in my entire life, and I walked out the door and thought, what have I done?” says Boaza, who has been flying for Air Rarotonga since 1997. “It’s real scary to take a big risk like that.”
Howard was also aware that piloting for Air Rarotonga was a precarious dream, so hedged his bets by studying marketing and economics at Otago University. After he had graduated and taken a job with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management, he still found himself running out of the office to watch the planes take off and land. He changed tack and went to flying school.
“When I came back and got a job at Air Rarotonga, that was nuts,” Howard says. “That was a dream come true.”
But getting the job is just the beginning.
Air Rarotonga sets some of the highest piloting standards in the region. Anyone who’s flown under his instruction will vouch that Hockin runs a tight ship.
“He set the standard in every way,” Guinea says. “I went from flying Bandits for Air Rarotonga to flying a 747 and when it got hard – and it did get hard because it’s very, very different – but I’d just sit there and think you know what, I got through Munro, so I can handle this. The airline I fly for is very British, an almost military airline, with incredible discipline and high demands. But it’s no different to Air Rarotonga – the scale is larger but all the demands of the job are exactly the same.
“I laugh sometimes because I teach people from all over the world about the advanced subjects of 777s, and I’m teaching these guys about flying in everything from hot weather to icy conditions and I’m this Maukean, I don’t have a clue what the snow’s all about. I can do what I do because of the foundation the guys at Air Raro gave me.”
“Munro does expect you to be on top of your game and for that I am truy thankful,” says Mackenzie, who is now based in Brisbane and flying for Qantas regional. “I find that in the current environment, sometimes people get used to too much automation, whereas in the islands, while you might have the automation, you’re always encouraged to think ahead and actually do hands on flying – skills I utilise to this very day.”
Like Hockin, local pilots Tangi Amataiti and James Herman are qualified flight examiners – highly regarded positions anywhere in the world – and run checks every six months.
Most pilots agree that the job’s perks outweigh its demands.
They’re paid to travel, explore, and escape the realities of life on the ground.
“The beauty of it is that no day is really the same as the day before,” Willis says. “And when you go into the outer islands, especially Aitutaki and up north, you see the colours and it just makes it all worth it.”
Those who fly chartered flights to the northern Cook Islands get to spend several nights on islands largely untouched by commercialism and tourism. Pilots gain contacts in the outer islands and exposure to Cook Islands Māori dialects beyond their own. They can document the outer islands through photos and video, then share their experiences with relatives who can’t afford to travel there themselves.
For Willis, who is also president of the Democratic Party, travel to the outer islands is an important perspective check.
“I get to deal with people at the grassroots level,” he says. “A lot of times, when you’re dealing with politicians in Raro, some are a bit high-thinking which doesn’t really work out in the big picture. I just appreciate being able to see what’s in the outer islands and what’s needed and important.”
But perhaps the most obvious perk of the job is where it takes place. Pilots in the Cook Islands spend their careers crossing some of the most breathtaking seas in the world.
“Your office is 10,000 feet in the sunshine in the Pacific,” says Amataiti, second training manager for Air Rarotonga. “You can’t really beat it.”
“It’s a great job,” Boaza says. “Maybe the best job in the country.”
Air Rarotonga pilots past and present say the company feels like a family. There are actual families flying for the airline – Willis sometimes shares the plane with his son, a first officer, and daughter, a flight attendant – but they are referring to the intimacy of working for a small business, the only one of its kind in the Cook Islands.
“Over here, you’re part of a bigger machine,” says Howard, who’s now flying for Air Nelson, an airline operating under the Air New Zealand Link brand. “It’s less personal. At Air Raro it’s a tight-knit group of people and that’s something you definitely notice when you leave.”
“At Air Raro you know everyone,” Guinea says. “You even know the fueller. It’s that small, almost country club type environment, because you know everyone, whereas in the bigger commercial company you naturally lose a lot of the relationships because you’re working with thousands of people. The difference between this lifestyle and the lifestyle in the Cooks is massive. Over here, you’re just a number in this massive corporation.”
Cook Islanders flying airplanes in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Dubai, Korea, and the U.K. recall fondly and with nostalgia the company that launched their careers – Air Rarotonga, a reputable airline with top-notch leadership operating in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
“So many guys that have come through Air Raro have done exceptionally well,” Howard says. “But when you speak to them, they want to come back. At the end of the day, you pursue the dream and get to the top – you get there, and then you just want to retire and go back to Air Raro.”