Jumping into action at Rotorua Airport

Clocking up more than 1,400 parachute jumps, Rotorua local John Harrison has trained New Zealand Defence Force and foreign military personnel around the world to do the same.

Settling back in Rotorua with his young family, Mr Harrison now trades in his chute to return to his first love of fire fighting, and sees the move home as a chance to give back to the local community in which he grew up, through his role as Rotorua Airport fire and operations manager.

Growing up at Lake Okareka, Mr Harrison always had his heart set on being a fireman and volunteered for the Lake Okareka Volunteer Rural Fire Force for four years from the age of 15.

“I always wanted to be a fireman and when I left school the New Zealand Fire Service wasn’t recruiting, so instead I joined the Royal New Zealand Airforce as a fireman,” Mr Harrison says.

After reaching the rank of senior fireman in the Airforce, Mr Harrison signed himself up for a parachute course and quickly became hooked in the thrill of propelling himself from aircraft, going on to train New Zealand defence personnel.

“My step-father was in the British Army as paratrooping artillery attached to number two para. His influence got me into jumping, as well as the fact that the hangar was right next to the fire station.

“When I first started, the parachutes were terrible – they were old, so they fell really quickly and they also had no brakes or steering.

“The goal is to get a soldier to the ground as quick as possible to avoid detection or contact from the enemy, but slow enough that they don’t get injured upon landing and are able to carry out their roles on the ground, so it’s a fine line.”

Taking the high-risk role of instructing soldiers across the world, Mr Harrison says what kept him there was his passion for training in a dangerous and dynamic environment to help soldiers succeed.

“The soldiers I was instructing had no choice about the matter – they had been told they had to become parachute qualified and for some, it was one of their biggest obstacles to overcome. It was rewarding to help them make such an achievement,” he says.

“By the time I left my position, I was running the advanced training cell with experience in every aspect, from round parachutes to square parachutes, freefall and tandem jumping, dispatching vehicles from a C-130 Hercules military aircraft and instructing instructors.”

I was then posted to RNZAF Base Ohakea as an Operations officer for 3 Squadron and then moved to Base Operations Officer.

With a young family, Mr Harrison says his needs changed and it was time to apply his military skills to the civilian sector.

His new role at Rotorua Airport as fire and operation manager is no small task, encompassing every aspect of running the airport including fire safety, security, runway inspections, maintenance, airfield compliance, parking and managing contractors.

“I’m really looking forward to sinking my teeth into a job that I can happily spend the next 10 years in. My role as fire and operations manager is almost a combination of everything I’ve learnt,” Mr Harrison says.

He sees the Airport as a central part of Rotorua and believes locals should be proud of what it represents.

“The Airport is the gateway for air travel and is a big part of bringing families together,” he says.

“I’m looking forward to applying my experience to help service not only the Airport but also the Rotorua community and the families that live here.

“Right now is a really cool time to be a part of Rotorua. Things are kicking off and progressing quickly and I’m keen to do my part to ensure the Airport grows with the city.

“The more thriving Rotorua is, the greater the demand for increased domestic routes and things will naturally progress from there.”