21 Jul 2019

Gavin Trethewey: Kiwi pilot who delivered moon landing to NZ

From Sunday Morning, 11:15 am on 21 July 2019

The man responsible for ensuring New Zealanders could view the moon landing 50 years ago says the flight from Sydney back to Wellington with the tape may have been the fastest ever. 

Neil Armstrong and 'Buzz' Aldrin plant the US flag on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969

Photo: AFP / NASA

While reports of the landing played on the radio in New Zealand, satellite dishes for the television broadcast were not able to capture footage straight from the moon.

To get the footage back to New Zealand as quick as possible, the Defence Force sent a plane to get the tape from Australia after it had happened.

The pilot of that flight, Gavin Trethewey, was just 26 at the time and told Sunday Morning it was nerve-wracking watching the broadcast in Australia.

"It came from the Parkes telescope and the Aussies had the ability to show that directly ... but we didn't have the ability to send it across the Tasman electronically in those days," he said.  

"It was very exciting to watch it as it happened and of course we were all very nervous because no one knew if it was going to succeed or if it was going to turn to disaster." 

A trained bomber pilot, Mr Trethewey said there was a lot of pilot skill involved in the original moon landing, and he had some understanding of what they were up against and practiced for. 

"I think it was very much a pilot's skill in those days, they didn't have the computer capability to do things automatically. There was certainly some computer help but they didn't have any computer power, really, compared with even an iPhone of today." 

Watch RNZ's report Marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing:

He said it was a relief to know the landing had been successful, and once the footage had been converted to a reel of film they raced back with it to Wellington.

"They wanted the fastest aeroplane on the airforce ... and I was the senior instructor on that aeroplane and so I guess it kind of came my way because of that," he said. 

They managed the journey in just two hours and 25 minutes.

"It wasn't a Tasman record but for a point-to-point Sydney Airport to Wellington Airport we think it was the fastest ever. We never claimed it as a record but we think it was. 

"We knew we had a flight to do and we had to do it at fairly high speed, but that wasn't too stressful - it was the sort of thing we were used to ... when we landed at Wellington we were met on the tarmac ... by NZBC. 

"They took the reel away and there was a police car there, they were led away with the lights flashing and they disappeared ... into the distance to get this thing on TV news." 

He said some sort of link had to be set up especially for the broadcast so it could be shown across the whole country. 

"I gather it was showed to everybody at 7.30[pm]," Mr Trethewey said. "We got back in the aeroplane and flew back to Ōhakea, which was where we lived." 

Mr Trethewey does not get paid to fly any longer, but is still involved in the warbirds association. 

For him, the memory of playing some small part in the whole endeavor - of humanity setting foot on the moon - will always be a treasured one. 

"We got it right that time, thank goodness."