Above and beyond – the Fiordland pilot who joined Cousteau’s Calypso

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October 23, 2020
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They said he’d never make it. . . .

Straight away we’ve exaggerated and Rod Hall-Jones wouldn’t like that. It’s the sort of thing a swaggering macho pilot would say, and that’s not him.

So we’ll check his new autobiography just a little more closely and confirm that, no, it was just the one person who made the sour prediction back in 1966.

Slight difficulty being, it was the chief flying instructor of the Southland Aero Club and his withering dismissal of the apparently unimpressive 17-year-old wasn’t one of those rebuffs that was just quietly intended to incentivise.

It must be said academic qualifications peaking somewhere below a School C pass mark hadn’t, in the eyes of his taciturn instructor, given young Rod’s freshly stated ambition to become a commercial pilot and instructor a whole heap of plausibility.

But the teenager bridled good and hard at the prediction and set about confounding it.

It turns out that instructor-examiner wasn’t much of a prophet.

Hall-Jones’s autobiography You’ll Never Make It has just hit the market; a tale of high adventure encompassing the wild years of southern live deer capture, six years’ helicopter service on Jacques Cousteau’s famed international research vessel Calypso, showing up at Mururoa Atoll while the French were conducting nuclear tests, bribing South East Asian officials, flying illegally over the embattled former Yugoslavia, flying interestingly close to volcanic eruptions. A bit of off-the-clock diving and submarine time too.

There’s even a bit where isolated Indonesian tribesmen beheld the magic bird he had landed nearby and – much like the aero club instructor – they didn’t think he was a pilot either.

They thought he was a god.

Perhaps we’ve lapsed into skiting on his behalf again.

Fact is, even in his youth Rod Hall-Jones hardly lacked for reason to carry with him a sense of purpose and potential, coming as he did from a family of high achievers.

While he was starting to earn his wings his supportive dad Geoff was establishing the southernmost amateur satellite tracking station in the world.

His surgeon uncle John was well on his way to becoming a celebrated southern historian, a status his lawyer granddad Fred had already achieved. Great- great grandfather John Turnbull-Thomson had been the Otago provincial surveyor who planned the layout of Invercargill before the town actually existed, later becoming the nation’s Surveyor-General, and taking a leading role in the development of the early infrastructure of 19th Century Singapore.

Whereas Rod had his 32 per cent in School C English.

In the early stages of the book the taciturn instructor, who was later his examiner, appears as something of a nemesis but countered by other more help helpful figures and, where necessary, sheer luck.

In conversation Hall-Jones puts it this way: “You can have two pilots come across an experience and the lucky one gets away from it – and learns. The unlucky one will be killed. Simple as that.’’

What happens when a deer tries to get on board.


What happens when a deer tries to get on board.

If so, then his learning experiences, particularly with helicopters, have been plentiful,. Within NZ these include a wire strike near Milton, where the wire mercifully sprang outwards rather than ensnaring the rotor blades. Another time a during live deer recovery, he flew close enough to one that it jumped onto the ‘copter skid, contriving to climb inside.

Then there was the time the pitch controlling mechanism(of unapproved design) locked, jamming the machine on autorotation. He and his passenger saved themselves through the ungentle and adrenalised approach of “tearing the bloody lock clean out of the floor’’.

More than that, the story is stacked with examples of envelope-pushing risk taking of a sort that wouldn’t be countenanced nowadays. But back then “it was about being competitive’’.

It’s not merely a story of cautionary tales, but also pilot-to-pilot advice:

“Stuff they don’t teach you,’’ the by-now impressively seasoned Hall-Jones, himself a veteran instructor, says. So often “they teach you what’s required to get through flight tests, but they don’t teach you the little things, that keep you alive.’’

Landing on the Calypso


Landing on the Calypso

Yes, yes, but we all want to know about the Cousteau years.

Hall-Jones was no different. As a young pilot he’d be among the Sunday night viewers of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a series that also drew the attention of songwriter John Denver whose big-hit tribute song Calypso celebrates his famed vessel and its crew “the men who have served you so log and so well’’ as ecological heroes.

Hall-Jones recalls watching one episode, set in Antarctica, as its helicopter landed on the Calypso’s pad, thinking what a great – no, fantastic – job that would be.

And then, out of the blue, in1986, he was offered it. Of course he initially thought the call from this guy called Bob Braunbeck was a hoax. But it wasn’t. Calypso was in Fiordland and in need of a pilot for a trip to Tahiti.

Calypso was a skinny vessel 40m long but only 7m wide and not blessed by any stabilisers to speak of. Not always an easy landing, though greater challenges would soon enough present themselves as he tried to satisfy eternally dissatisfied cameramen who might film 80 hours to achieve one hours’ footage.

“Cameramen. Never happy with what they have.’’

At Mururora during the hugely controversial nuclear testing conducted by Cousteau’s own countrymen, Calypso was a tolerated presence, though the Southlander was not best pleased to learn he’d been drinking the potentially compromised water from the atoll itself, testing the boat’s water filtration system rather more than he was comfortable with.

Things were also a tad awkward, for a while there, in that the New Zealander would find himself in close confines with divers who had military backgrounds and knew a couple of French citizens who had achieves infamy here; Alain Marfat and Dominique Prieur – convicted for their role in the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

Jacques Cousteau with Rod Hall-Jones


Jacques Cousteau with Rod Hall-Jones

The formidable Cousteau himself struck Hall-Jones as a demanding figure; one who couldn’t understand, let alone tolerate, how it wasn’t possible for this celebrated crew just to get where they needed to be and do what they needed to do without dealing with difficulties of bureaucracy and, sometimes, law.

Whereas his wife Mme Cousteau was no-less-remarkable presence. From her wealthy background she was the one who, in the very early days, had pawned her jewellery to keep the Calypso in business and she features even more prominently than her husband in the stories.

It’s not only pilots who might benefit from some of the book’s advisory passages. For instance, the thing about bribing officials in Southeast Asia is this: “It is of the utmost importance not to show the urgency and to keep smiling while handing the bribe over with the application form’’.

At times a profound sense of ecological outrage does emerge from the storytelling, never moreso than, while filming the hideous pollution spewing from a chemical factor in Romania, he and his cameraman had weaponry trained on them from the ground as they flew time and again to show the filth that was shortening the lives of the nearby people of Nikopol.

There was nothing macho about their persistence. People needed to know. That was all.

The humanity of many encounters emerges too. In a small town called Wuring, on the Indian Ocean island of Flores, a community of Arabic extraction lived in a crowded community of shacks. Outside one of these a sound stopped him in his tracks.

A boy of around 16 was sitting on a wooden chair, playing classical music on a 12-string guitar.

It was beautiful. Mesmerising. A woman brought him a chair and a drink. Every now and then the boy would look over, smile, and nod.

Howls of grief intruded brutally from the neighbouring house .

The boy stopped, saw the look on his face, and said in broken English: “The baby just died.’’

And played on.

Rod Hall-Jones returned to Fiordland and further adventures including rescue flights and moose hunting.

Now in his 70s, his wings have been somewhat clipped by medical restrictions – they really look for reasons once a pilot reaches the age of 60, he reckons – but though he can’t carry fare-paying passengers he does still fly part-time. And happily. For all his adventures, Fiordland’s where his heart is. It sings to him.

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