In April, pioneering woman pilot Helen Georgeson passed away. A successful pilot, both in partnership with her ex-husband Dick and in her own right, she was an inspiration to friends, family and women pilots who came after her. Her nephew Nigel Ackroyd has put some words together in memory of an extraordinary woman.
Helen Pamela Georgeson, known as Heli, was a lovely lady. She was full of the joys of life, caring and always busy. Heli was a mine of information, be it sailplanes, gardening, jet boating, or sailing.
Helen excelled in gliding. Her first instructional flight was in 1953. She soloed shortly after and achieved the Women’s absolute gain of height record in 1954, soaring to 13,200 feet in the Weihe. Helen did her five hours duration in Queenstown and her 50K, the final cross country leg of the silver C, at Simons Hill. This gave her the first Silver C of anyone in New Zealand, at the end of 1954. A feat the men of the era were not so keen to celebrate. For Helen, this was only the beginning!
Besides the Weihe, Heli flew the Slingsby Eagle and the new Skylark 3F in 1960. She set a new women’s altitude record of 18,100 feet in 1961. A further flight to 22,000 feet, unfortunately, could not be ratified. There were trips to world championships and numerous NZ championships, as well as driving hundreds of miles supporting Dick’s record attempts. She and husband Dick achieved two two-seater world records in their Janus VV. A 1018.6km flight from Alexandra to Gisborne in 1982 gained them the Straight Distance, and Straight Distance to a predetermined goal records. Of those flights, Dick says that Heli was a great partner to fly with. She had a flair for recognising the weather and directed him to areas of best lift. On their world record flight, Dick says he was “fluffing around in behind the Torlesse range, when Heli said, ‘If you stay here any longer, we’ll never even get to Hanmer. Why don’t you go on the Western side?’” Dick did and they got into good lift, which took them all the way to Cook Strait. “She was great to fly with,” Dick says. “I couldn’t have had a better partner.”
Dick tells that he wanted her to get her Gold C, but once the children came along, things became difficult. She was, however, a terrific supporter for his record attempts and could pack up at a moment’s notice when the weather was right, to get them where Dick needed to be.
Heli’s time in gliding is well documented in Dick Georgeson and Anna Wilson’s book, The Leading Edge.
Helen’s personality is best described in some short accounts by some of her many friends in the gliding fraternity:
Heli – we all had good times together in Queenstown, Five Rivers, Omarama, at Mt Cook. Angela was lucky to have delightful visits with Helen in the Sounds. She was a loyal friend. She was always supportive. We admired her edgy and powerful style and great company. We are all so glad she was our friend.
Jan, Bill, Angela and Sonya Walker
It was February 1973 and the mercury was soaring to ridiculous heights, as Bruce and I went to visit the Georgesons at Kennedys Bush Road. I was very heavily pregnant and Heli sat us down and gave us stern warnings about how long my labour should be and when we should call in the experts, sharing with us the tragic loss of her first child. Then she instructed Bruce to take me down the path to their secluded pool. That was the most memorable swim of my life. I was cool, I was comfortable, I was weightless! By morning tea time the next day, our daughter was born and a week later, with baby in the carry cot, we arrived once again at Kennedys Bush Road, this time for a barbecue. Helen and Dick were thrilled for us.
Bruce recalls being out flying in a Hughes 300 helicopter and the Georgeson’s came up on his radar. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to try and land on their lawn? Maybe, except that Helen had been hard at work in the garden, as usual, and there was a full wheelbarrow off to one side. As he hovered overhead, Helen’s wheelbarrow tipped over in the downwash, spewing its contents all over the garden again. At that stage, Bruce decided that he was so far in the doo doo, he might just as well continue and land.
Dick ran round like a chook with his head cut off, looking for a camera - which fortunately he couldn’t find - and after a quick hello and goodbye, Bruce took off again before Helen could give him the dressing down he was expecting and probably deserved!
Rae & Bruce Drake
Helen Georgeson had a vibrant personality and was a great inspiration to us all - particularly Dick, on many of his record breaking glider flights. She was most supportive. The flight I was most familiar with was the world record flight to Te Araroa from Tower Peak, where we farmed, on the south east of the Te Anau basin. On this flight, Dick became desperately low, down to two thousand feet above Methven. Heli bellowed over the radio, “Get that wheel up and get going!” Which he did. There may have been another outcome, were it not for the support from Heli.
For many of the gliding attempts made from Tower Peak, more than seven or eight times, Heli was there towing the trailer from Christchurch and back.
Jet boating was probably Heli’s most passionate pursuit and she became a very able jet boat driver. I recall well a national gliding contest at Alexandra, 1982 I think, when Heli took a number of us up the Clutha from Clyde. We went ashore and discovered a small Chinese miner’s hut, in which we found a shoe nailed together with bamboo. We left it there on Heli’s request, she being one to leave things as they were.
She was always one to help the less fortunate, even to the point of adopting a poor little homeless dog from the pound. She named it Piglet. A beardy little soul with one eye missing. We all soon fell in love with this little one eyed friend. It was a privilege to have known Heli Georgeson and those of us who did are all the better for having done so. Our condolences go out to the family.
Mairi and David Speight
I joined the CGC well after Heli had made her pioneering milestone in NZ’s early aviation history, by being the first to achieve a Silver C badge in NZ – that was certainly some achievement in those days. I relate well to how much she must have upset the men who were equally as keen to be the prestigious ‘first’. It would only be a few years later that I would have a similar experience, as the only woman competitor winning against the men at top level flying competitions. Men did not take easily to being outdone by a woman at anything in those male dominated and chauvinistic days, let alone in the male bastion of ‘aviation,’ in the era when women were expected to be at home: housekeeping, cooking and looking after the children. How special it must have been to have Dick’s expertise, support and encouragement, added to her own willingness to step outside the ‘norm’ for women then. And how lucky Dick was, to have a wife who so fully supported his gliding goals, which were many, over several decades. Everyone knew the dynamic gliding team of ‘Dick and Heli,’ with Heli being well known to many for her adaptability (dropping everything to prepare for yet another of Dick’s record attempts, while raising a family), co-piloting with Dick on his Twin Seat world record attempts in VV, driving long distances with glider in tow, a lot of laughter, expertise in jet boating, gliding and crewing and her enjoyment of family, people and love of animals (I particularly remember Piglet, that she had rescued from an owner she witnessed ill-treating the dog) – oh yes, and the odd temper tantrum that had us beating a hasty retreat, and no doubt Piglet’s owner too. I remember Heli fondly and will continue to enjoy many wonderful memories of a ‘tall poppy’ woman.
Helen had left the gliding scene by the time I was around, so sadly I never met her. I was always impressed reading of her flying and thought she must have been amazingly tough to fly in bare feet. The people who knew her well always speak of her warmly and it can’t have been easy achieving the goals and records that she did, living somewhat in Dick’s shadow, even though Dick would never have intended that.
The wing of fame in the (Canterbury) clubhouse had a space left for Helen’s records, so I hope that will be written in on her behalf.
Heli was a special friend to me and my late husband Neville and we often recalled the wonderful times we had, jet-boating, salmon fishing on the Rakaia, holidaying in the Sounds with Heli, Dick and family.
Heli was an animal lover, her dogs Tara, the (mad !!) Piglet and the lamb went everywhere with her. The few times I crewed, on the drive down south I was stuck in the back of the Landrover with the animals with very unpleasant smells!
Helie was a loyal friend, who was very caring and generous of her time. We remember her love of the garden and her warm and generous hospitality. We mourn the passing of a great friend and accomplished sportswoman.
Robyn Banton, Perth WA
(by Nigel Ackroyd and others)