Story: Gibson, Esmond Allen

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Gibson, Esmond Allen

1896–1981

Civil engineer, aviation administrator

This biography was written by F. Nigel Stace and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Esmond Allen Gibson was born in Wellington on 7 August 1896, the son of Arthur Henry Gibson, a lawyer, and his wife, Annie Ellen Chew. He was educated at Wellington College, Victoria University College, and Canterbury College, where he took an active part in rugby, rifle shooting and field sports. Gibson enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1915, and served in France from 1916 to 1918 in the 1st Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment. In December 1918 he met Winifred Natalia Richardson in France, where she was serving as a telegraphist in the artillery. Winifred was the eldest daughter of an army officer and had grown up in South Africa, Rhodesia and Gibraltar. Esmond visited her later in south Wales, and they were married in Croydon, London, on 5 July 1919. They left shortly after for New Zealand, where their three sons were born.

From about 1920 until 1934 ‘Gibby’, as he was known by his colleagues, was employed on several civil engineering projects with the Public Works Department (PWD). These included the Waihi–Tauranga railway, the Waiotira–Dargaville line and extension to Donnellys Crossing, the Westfield deviation and Auckland station, and the South Island main trunk from Parnassus northward. As assistant road engineer in Christchurch he oversaw the Wigram Aerodrome redevelopment.

In 1934 Gibson was moved to Wellington as aerodrome engineer to lead the PWD into the emerging era of commercial aviation. In 1936, with a colleague, D. S. G. Marchbanks, whose contribution dealt with aircraft hangars and their design, he presented an authoritative paper, ‘Aerodrome and air route development in New Zealand’, to the annual conference of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers. This described the current state of aviation in New Zealand, the accomplishments to date, and the likely future, and was probably the first complete technical paper on aeronautical engineering in New Zealand.

In 1934 Gibson had obtained his commercial pilot’s licence. In 1937 he became a squadron leader in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, commanding its first fully operational territorial squadron at Rongotai. They flew Blackburn Baffins and, later, Vildebeestes and all spare time was spent on practice. By this stage Gibson had concluded that New Zealand was vulnerable in the event of war between Britain and Japan, and began to investigate aerial supply routes to Hawaii and the United States. In 1938–39 he was in charge of the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey Expedition. From 1939 until 1942, as director of works for the RNZAF, Gibson, promoted to wing commander in 1940, was in charge of construction and building works in the south Pacific and New Zealand. In conjunction with Australia and the United States, the aerodrome construction units of the RNZAF built a chain of airstrips across the Pacific which enabled effective defence when the attacks came in 1941–42. In 1943 he was seconded to the headquarters staff of Admiral William Halsey, commander of United States forces in the south Pacific. In the same year he was made an OBE for his services during the war. He was made an officer of the U.S. Legion of Merit in 1945.

After the war Gibson was eminently qualified to play a significant role in civil aviation. He was a member of professional bodies such as the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Royal Aeronautical Society and the New Zealand Institution of Engineers. This, plus his practical experience in significant engineering projects in New Zealand, and his experience in flying and Pacific air route development, assisted his appointment as director of air transport in 1944, and in 1947 he was appointed New Zealand’s first director of civil aviation. In this position he strongly supported aerial top-dressing when commercial operations began in 1949.

In 1951 Gibson presented, again to the annual conference of the engineering profession, his second major paper, ‘Modern problems of civil aviation’. The paper combined his extensive experience in the engineering and aeronautical fields, conveying to an engineering audience the problems faced by airmen. He predicted the likely effects of rapid change in airport design, radio navigational aids, aircraft landing gear, aerial top-dressing, and the advent of jet-engined planes. His forecasts proved remarkably accurate, especially for unidirectional airports like Rongotai. In subsequent years he promoted international airways standards as vice president of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

In 1956 Gibson retired from the position of director of civil aviation, but continued his association with the industry as an aeronautical consultant and New Zealand and East Asian representative for Leigh, Fisher and Associates, San Francisco. He was president of the Wellington Aero Club from 1965 to 1972, and its patron until 1981. He was awarded the CBE for his services to civil aviation in 1978.

Winifred Gibson, from whom Esmond had been separated for some time, died on 11 March 1971. At Wellington, on 22 March, he married Gloria Amuri Gibson. Gloria was a doctor’s receptionist, and also a successful author of books and stories for children. She had long been Gibson’s partner, and had changed her surname by deed poll from Judkins; two sons and a daughter had been born to them.

Esmond Gibson died at Wellington on 17 March 1981, survived by Gloria, five sons and a daughter. He was outgoing, forthright, even autocratic, and regularly at the centre of animated conference groups. An acknowledged ‘character’ in aeronautical circles, he was just the man to take a lead in the development of aviation in New Zealand.