Story: Wigley, Henry Rodolph

Page 1 - Wigley, Henry Rodolph

Wigley, Henry Rodolph

1913–1980

Civilian and military aviator, company director, commercial aviation entrepreneur

This biography was written by D. E. Drake and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Henry Rodolph Wigley was born at Fairlie, South Canterbury, on 2 February 1913, the eldest son of Jessie Christie Grant and her husband, Rodolph Lysaght Wigley, a mail contractor, and later an airline operator. Harry attended Timaru Boys’ High School and Christ’s College. He was still under 20 when he began his pilot training with Squadron Leader T. W. (‘Tiny’) White. He completed his training with the Canterbury Aero Club in Christchurch and gained his ‘A’ licence in October 1935.

By the early 1930s Wigley had entered the family firm, the Mount Cook Tourist Company of New Zealand, in Timaru, of which his father was the founder and managing director. Harry, by now a qualified commercial pilot, left his office in 1938 to fly for the small, associated company, Queenstown–Mount Cook Airways Limited. He often spent weekends taking locals joyriding. On 16 September 1939, in Timaru, he married Isabella Jessie Allport; they were to have five children.

In February 1940 Wigley joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He played a prominent role as a senior flying instructor at the Elementary Flying Training School, Taieri, near Dunedin, for two years. After training more than 100 young New Zealanders to fly, he served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific, first as a flight commander with No 14 Squadron, and then as commanding officer of No 19 Squadron. On his third and final tour of duty (October 1944 to May 1945), in the rank of wing commander, he was responsible for a group of four fighter squadrons operating from Bougainville Island. In recognition of his war service of over six years he was made an OBE in 1946.

On his return to civilian life Wigley helped form the South Canterbury Aero Club, serving as an honorary instructor and later as president. In the post-war period he pioneered aerial search and rescue operations in the Southern Alps, flying a de Havilland Tiger Moth. But from 1946 his work as managing director of the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company (the name adopted in the mid 1930s) increasingly occupied his time and energy. A national downhill ski champion in 1936, and captain of the New Zealand ski team in 1936–37, he envisaged the development of winter sports and led his company in establishing new ski-fields and facilities at Coronet Peak and Lake Ohau. In the early 1950s he also encouraged the company to involve itself in the aerial top-dressing and rabbit poisoning businesses, and in 1954 a subsidiary, Mount Cook Air Services, was established.

By this time Harry Wigley had begun to study the feasibility of equipping a light aircraft with retractable skis to enable it to take off from dry ground and land on snow. Overseas, aircraft were equipped with skis for snow take-offs and landings, but the use of both wheels and skis was unknown. His lengthy trials with models and battles with bureaucracy eventually paid a handsome dividend. On 22 September 1955 he successfully flew a high-winged Auster Aiglet aircraft fitted with retractable wooden skis from the grass airfield at Mt Cook and touched down on the snowfield of the Tasman Glacier. After that flight, which was reputed to be the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere, ski-plane landings in the Southern Alps became commonplace.

Active in the Pacific Area Travel Association, and the New Zealand Travel and Holidays Association (as president from 1967 to 1970), Wigley involved his company further in the booming tourist industry by inaugurating, late in 1961, a Douglas DC-3 air passenger service from Christchurch to Mt Cook, Queenstown and Manapouri, in addition to expanding bus schedules. It was an immediate success. Seven years later the company introduced a British-built turboprop airliner, the Hawker Siddeley 748, the first of several such aircraft which carried Mount Cook Airline (as the company’s aerial division became known) into the 1990s. Such was the subsequent expansion of the company – renamed the Mount Cook Group Limited in 1976 – that by 1971 its head office had been transferred to Christchurch, and its boss had reluctantly left his home town.

Harry Wigley, a fellow of two British organisations – the Royal Aeronautical Society, London, and the Chartered Institute of Transport – was made a CBE in 1969 and a KBE in 1976 in recognition of his service to tourism and aviation. He had a wide circle of friends, and commanded considerable respect throughout the New Zealand business spectrum. His two books, Ski-plane adventure (1965) and The Mount Cook way (1979), introduced reminiscences, many of them amusing, of his main recreational pursuits: trout fishing, game shooting, skiing and photography.

Through his vigour, initiative and enthusiasm, Harry Wigley had developed the Mount Cook Group into the country’s largest privately owned travel organisation, and in doing so left a permanent mark in the history of New Zealand’s tourist and aviation industries. In 1979 he entered semi-retirement, handing over the reins of responsibility to a new managing director, but continuing in the role of chairman of directors. On 15 September 1980, while enjoying a round of golf in Christchurch, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was survived by his wife and five children.