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Jim Hickey finds his wings

He's back! Former weather presenter Jim Hickey is the pilot of his own destiny.

By Kelly Bertrand
He retired from presenting the nation's weather last year, but since then, Jim Hickey hasn't been able to get away from the forecasts. Before he leaves his New Plymouth home to go anywhere – whether he's popping down to the shops or catching a flight – he makes sure he's checked the forecast because he knows he'll be asked at least 10 times that day, "What's the weather doing, Jim?"
"It's already happened this morning, on the flight up to Auckland," the veteran broadcaster and pilot (65) says with a smile. "Now I tell them, "See what [TVNZ weather presenters] Karen [Olsen] and Dan [Corbett] say!"
It's his long career in meteorology, coupled with his lifelong passion for flying, that's enabled the endearing weathercaster to front an episode of the second season of Descent from Disaster. The TV One series follows well-known faces as they travel the country to hear the stories of those affected by some of our greatest disasters. Jim's episode centres around a 1948 disaster, in which a National Airways Corporation (NAC) plane flying from Palmerston North to Hamilton slammed into the side of Mt Ruapehu, killing all 13 on board instantly.
Jim meets Barbra Turner of Picton, whose mother, Mrs WJ Bell, a mum of eight children, was bereaved in the Mt Ruapehu air tragedy.
"It was the worst aviation disaster of its time," says Jim, who was born a year after the crash, but remembers the resulting investigations. "In the early days of aviation in New Zealand, it was novel, adventurous and romantic. But these pilots were all former World War II fighter pilots, flying old, basic planes with no sophisticated navigational systems. They shouldn't have been flying."It was a densely cloudy October day – total whiteout, says Jim – and the plane took off in conditions much worse than forecast.
"The pilot didn't know exactly where he was and they got blown into the side of the mountain," explains Jim.
As part of the show, Jim spoke to one of the doomed passenger's daughters, Barbra Turner – and it turns out, New Zealand Woman's Weekly had a lot to do with keeping her, her seven siblings and mother together after they tragically lost their father and husband. Touched by the family's plight, a call went out for money to help them. The nation responded by sending their shillings and pounds to the Weekly's offices to keep Barbra's family afloat – it was the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars today.
"It's what this show is all about – hearing the stories that have never been told before," Jim explains.
A keen pilot for many years, flying has always been in Jim's blood – his dad, Jim Sr, was a Spitfire pilot in WWII.
"I've had a couple of close shaves myself," he reveals. "I had a near miss one day – another pilot said he was somewhere he shouldn't have been, and he wasn't. He came straight underneath me."
The clipping from the November 11, 1948 New Zealand Woman's Weekly issue in which Kiwis helped Barbra's family. "They just did the most wonderful thing," she says.
However, he's recently had to say goodbye to his beloved YAK 52 aerobatic plane, the first time in a long while that he's been without a plane of his own.
"I might get another one, though," he muses. "But I did just order a Chevy Camaro from America. I convinced my wife that because the plane was gone, a car was a good idea!"
Since leaving TVNZ last December, Jim says despite his retirement from the small screen, he hasn't slowed down. "I've never been busier in one sense, but I don't have to worry about the watch so much."
His number-one priority has been his business Airspresso, an airport café chain with two locations, New Plymouth and Queenstown, which are keeping him busy. He also has a few TV projects in the pipeline, which means he'll be appearing on our screens in the near future. But his main passion remains flying, something he's determined to continue.
"Flying is incredible – it's thrilling and it involves a lot of discipline," he says. "You have to be thorough – it's not like you can pull over at 10,000 feet!"

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