Aircraft and avionics engineer, New Zealand’s voice on international safety standards, risk consultant, RSA leader, JP, motorcyclist, and darts player – Garry House wears many hats.
At 70, he’s going strong, with regular commitments to travel around the world. Modest and unassuming, Garry is a vast storehouse of information on technical matters related to aviation and high-risk fields, and is often called on for his expertise. ‘I don’t feel like 70 because I’m still riding bikes and leaping around,’ he says with a grin. His bike is a beautifully maintained Royal Enfield Classic 350 in a striking blue. It looks like an old bike but has modern disc brakes and electronic ignition for safety and efficiency.
Garry has spent most of his life in Christchurch and lives with wife Linda in the same street in South New Brighton that his grandparents used to live in. The couple have two grown-up children, Lance and Rebecca. Garry loves the area and sense of community. It’s only a short drive or motorcycle ride away from the New Brighton RSA, where Garry is manager-secretary-treasurer.
His wall is covered with certificates and mementoes and historic posters and photographs. There are also two wooden propellers – one from a Tiger Pup and the other belonging to a 1939 Airspeed Oxford bomber, the same aircraft his father, Captain Ron House, flew during World War II.
Garry attributes his love of aviation to his father. As a flight lieutenant in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Ron House took part in the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 – a major victory against the Japanese. He rose to the rank of squadron leader and flew Lockheed Ventura and Hudson light bombers; his actual Hudson is now on display at the Wigram Air Force Museum. Garry still has his father’s logbook from those perilous days, every page filled in meticulously and neatly by hand.
Garry’s father continued flying after the war and became chief pilot for Civil Aviation and helped set up the National Airways Corporation (NAC, which merged with Air New Zealand in 1978).
Garry grew up on the east side of Christchurch, and attended Cathedral Grammar, Christ’s College and Riccarton High School. As a lad he liked tinkering with crystal sets. ‘I wanted to do an apprenticeship in electrical engineering, and once I got qualified, I was then requested to transfer to aircraft engineering. So I transferred to avionics and worked on many aircraft.’
As an engineer, Garry took part in many test flights. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the main aircraft were DC3s, Fokker F27 Friendships and Vickers 807 Viscounts, and then the 100-series Boeing 737s, New Zealand’s first jets. Garry worked on all of them. These were followed by 200- and 300-series Boeing 737s, as well as C-130 Hercules and Air Force 727s, among others.
‘Sometimes you might do multiple test flights to get it right. The pilots steer and fly the plane very well, but they don’t necessarily know why it’s doing something. I think all of the staff who have been in the air during test flights at some stage would have had interesting circumstances. No one, I think, was scared; we were professionals, but I can remember once doing seven flights in the same plane, a series-100 Boeing 737, in the day, to get it right and I started to get concerned when we couldn’t find what was incorrect. We found the problem; it was one of the flaps.’
Test flights can be dangerous. Garry lost a good friend, engineer Michael Giles, during an Airbus test flight for Air New Zealand in France, in 2008.
Today, software has become important. ‘Back when I was young, a 20- to 23-year-old, we had to know a broad range of issues around the aircraft, but the avionics engineers nowadays are very specialised with the computer technology.’
Aircraft were exotic and exciting machines. ‘Oh yes, it was something to behold – to fly in a Viscount, I would say would be the pinnacle of my enjoyment. They’re beautiful aircraft to fly, very heavy; they were one of the first pressurised airliners, not just a plane. They were comfortable, they could hold 66 to 70 people, they were warm, you could get a meal, they were very safe, with four engines. Difficult to work on (typical British engineering), but they handled and flew very well, and were much loved by crews and passengers. I enjoyed working on those planes.’
The Viscount was the forerunner to the Boeing 737 and served all the main routes: Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, Wellington and Auckland. The flagship of the National Airways fleet was a Viscount, ZK-BRF, which is now in the Ferrymead Museum.
‘The jets were different. I was 18 years of age when I first saw a 737 and I was invited, that day, to go to Wellington on a flight for the Prime Minister [Keith Holyoake] to accept it. It landed in Christchurch and then it went to Wellington so I was quite excited, as an 18-year-old, to have flown on ZK-NAC, a 100-series Boeing. This was 20 August, 1968.
‘It was quite exciting to work on them. I was green, I only had my electrical knowledge and no training. I was on loan as a young electrical engineer, to help provide power to the aircraft in the hangars, on the ground, and on the tarmac. So when they offered me, a couple of years later, to transfer permanently to avionics, I grabbed that up.’
His mentor, Harold Sherwood, encouraged him. Garry was mainly based in Christchurch, but was sent to England, aged 21, to learn about supplying ground power to aircraft and to purchase some generators.
He did just under 40 years’ service with NAC and Air New Zealand, from 1967 to 2006, retiring as corporate safety manager and chief inspector. He is still contracted to Air Zealand and provides the airline with technical and legal assistance.
In 1975, the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. Garry joined an Australian mate in Southeast Asia where he helped out evacuating civilians. He’s not authorised to go into details, but admits it was a tough job. ‘They had to basically assist with moving the American-bred children out of Vietnam. I can’t say much more but I assisted my colleague helping evacuate the children by air. I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do because the children were evacuated to Manila and most of them adopted into America. I’m not sure what happened to their mums and parents – there’s been lots of discussions – we had no input into that; we were pushing them onto the aircraft as fast as we could.’
As an avionics technical lead hand, Garry was impacted by the 1979 Erebus disaster. The avionics team was involved in the investigations when an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed in Antarctica, killing all 257 people aboard.
‘It was claimed that the computers and avionics had made a potential mistake. I have strong views on the responsibility and on the outcome of the Royal Commission. [Justice Mahon] said there was “a litany of lies”. I don’t think it was deliberately, but I don’t think there was great assistance given. I, and many others, believe that the responsibility lay with the captain, finally.
‘He didn’t have necessarily the correct information, but he had the warning that the information may not be correct from the flight engineer and he didn’t, in my view, listen.
‘I know that things throughout the world have been changed now, that a captain now has to listen to the other officers on the flight deck and he cannot ignore them. It was very much in those days, the captain is God, and he’ll do what he wants to do. That’s been changed significantly throughout the world. It’s very much a team effort now.’
Garry is the New Zealand head delegate convenor for International Standards for high risk, which includes aviation; the convenor/chairman for the International Standards Organisation (ISO) for the technical committees which looks after aviation; and the head delegate for the New Zealand Government for IEC Hazardous Areas, which is the International Electrotechnical Commission in charge of electrical standards. He is also Hazardous Areas chairman for New Zealand and Australia. High-risk areas include aviation, explosives, marine and mining.
‘I attend meetings as far away as Russia, the Czech Republic, England, America, Australia, China and many other countries on behalf of the New Zealand Government, and ensure that our legislation is as closely aligned with international legislation as practically possible. We need to do that to facilitate trade. If our standards and our legislation and our regulations are too different from international, then we can’t import products and use them here, and we can’t export things and sell them overseas because they say “This is unsafe” or “This doesn’t comply”.’
As delegate for New Zealand mining standards, Garry has been involved in the Pike River Mine disaster inquiry. ‘I can’t say too much about that, but in my view as the delegate for the committee EL/23 for New Zealand, there was nothing wrong with the actual legislation. In my view, it was that it wasn’t utilised and used correctly on site.’
After Garry left Air New Zealand, he started up a regulatory consultancy company, Envirolight, to provide advice and certifications. ‘We do inspections of large, high-risk sites like flour mills, which can explode. People don’t realise that dust explodes, so we give advice.’
He is a licensed inspector across many areas such as fisheries, electrical, hazardous areas and aviation.
Garry has been a member of the New Brighton RSA since 1973. ‘Although I attended occasionally and had my daughter’s 21st there and my father’s funeral there, I only turned up once or twice a year. After the earthquake they lost their building entirely and they were in dire need of technical and business help. The committee approached me and said can you help us, so we called an emergency meeting and I was voted in as manager-secretary-treasurer and I immediately took action.
‘We now are very strong, we’re financially well, and we now share the building equally with the New Brighton Bowling Club. Many bowls club members are members of the RSA and many RSA members are members of the bowls club, and the bowls club members are very quick to assist us on ANZAC Day and Poppy Day. I love this area of New Brighton. It’s very much a community.’
Garry has been pleased to see a big interest in the RSA from young people. ‘I think that’s demonstrated especially with the schools, the Scouts and the Girl Guides in attendance on ANZAC Day. New Brighton RSA has a parade of cadets from the Air Force, Navy and Army. The young girls and boys love doing that and they stand at the cenotaph.’
Last year, over 3,000 attended the ceremony at the beach. He says he believes it’s important for young people to get involved. ‘They need to understand how many people gave them the life they’ve got now, sacrificed their lives so that these children can go to school, can have medical care, and can turn up on ANZAC Day with relative safety and see.’
So, does Garry ever slow down? ‘I like a beer at the RSA every now and again. Club night at the RSA is Thursday night, and some of my friends from Air New Zealand and some of the neighbours come here on a Friday night when I’m home, because I travel a lot, and we have a few beers and we play darts – we’ve been playing darts for 40 years.’
Words David Killick