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Airport’s longest-serving employee reflects on 45 years of service

Saturday 27 January 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Memory Lane, Weekend


Airport’s longest-serving employee reflects on 45 years of service
George Nicholls, pictured with his wife and family, received a Gold Star awards for his 44 years of service. MELINA ETCHES/24012340

Amidst the bustling hub of aviation activity at the gateway to the Cook Islands, Rarotonga Airport, stands Rescue Fire Services’ dedicated manager, George Nicholls, who has committed nearly 45 years of solid-service to the community. Melina Etches reports.

Through countless emergency responses, including house fires, lost and found tourists, sea rescue operations and more, spanning over four decades, Nicholls has become the longest-serving employee in the history of the Airport Authority.

For nearly half a century, he has been the backbone of the Airport Rescue Fire Services, starting his dream career on March 19, 1979.

From the early days of his career to the present, Nicholls has stood at the fire station, the beacon of safety; as planes take off and touch down, passengers embark on new journeys and locals return home, ensuring the airport remains a secure hub for all.

There have been significant and good changes in learning and training in the role of a firefighter as well as carrying out the tasks required, says Nicholls.

When he began his career, the late Barry Hill was the fire chief, and John Rennie his deputy. The Rarotonga airport was then managed by the New Zealand Ministry of Transport (MOT).

Nicholls says back then they were New Zealand trained and firefighters from Tonga, Niue and Samoa would come to Rarotonga to get certified and return to their respective countries.

“There was that good relationship working with these people.”

Airport Authority Cook Islands took over the airport’s ownership in April 1986.

In 1992, a fire destroyed the building block in downtown Rarotonga that housed the Ministry of Justice, Cook Islands Post Office, and Telecom, known as “The Court House”.

Nicholls was on duty with another fireman Mac when he received the emergency call about 6pm that The Court House was on fire.

He drove to the fire by himself on the island’s only fire truck that carried about 1100 litres of water.

“You’ve got a double clutch and the truck is so slow so as you drive you try to build up first gear, second gear, third gear, and if someone comes in front of you, you have to slow down and you’ve to start all over again.”

Near the middle of town (the old JPI and UIT), he saw that the whole town was full of smoke.

“I knew it was something big, I called Mac back at the station,” he recalls.

“By the time I got to the roundabout the whole courtroom was ablaze.”

Nicholls’ last call to Mac was to “send as many fire trucks (foam tenders) as you can” before he lost communication. He explains that the yellow fire trucks are foam tenders designed for aircraft, not for domestic fires, and the Fire Chief and Airport Manager have the authority to release the foam tenders.

He tried calling the station again but there was total silence because the telecommunications centre on the top floor was blazing.

“There was no communication, no radio, no telephone worked.”

Arriving at the scene, he was grateful for the ex-firefighters who came along to help pull out the hydro portable pump.

Nicholls rushed to connect everything and hand out hoses, working until the water in the fire truck ran out.

He then reversed to the Takuvaine stream (next to the Empire Theatre) and, using a shovel, lowered his second hose to get water from the creek.

The pump usually would work for about half an hour, but he kept running down to the creek to get water for the radiator.

“What was amazing was that pumps worked for over seven hours non-stop, our mechanic Tangata Vaikai arrived he was amazed too.”

The other tender was fighting the fire from the Takuvaine side, and the second one from the Avarua Wharf side, drawing water from the sea.

“It took about eight hours fighting that fire.”

With the fire out and everything packed up, Nicholls went into the charred remains of the building with a torch to assess the damage.

“I came out it was about 3am and someone had driven the truck back to the station…”

He couldn’t ring anyone so started walking home to Matavera where he lived at the time.

“I got to the Outpatients I stopped and had a rest then carried on walking all the way.”

Arriving home exhausted with no energy left to even shower, Nicholls grabbed a mat and slept outside. He was the first firefighter to arrive at the raring inferno … and the last to leave.

A poignant memory he recalls from the blaze was seeing Tiata, a local singer, walking right in the middle of the road, guitar strapped across his back and ukulele across his chest, both hands clasped to his head crying.

“This local person felt the loss of the people and he was crying…”

After the Court House fire, Nicholls says a review was conducted to determine what the standard of the fire service was at that time.

“We were fortunate that the Airport Authority nominated that Christchurch, because they were the top in New Zealand Aviation firefighters, should come in.

“They came, did their survey and brought a Fire Chief and training officers and we started more training.”

Most of the seniors had to re-sit and start at the basic level and then start to climb the ranks again.

“It was really good because you learnt and understood more about aircraft firefighting, fire separations, rescue, control etc.”

Around 40 years ago there were about 32 to 33 firefighters because it was a requirement per truck to have six persons on standby.

Today there are five firefighters in Aitutaki and 26 in Rarotonga with six or seven on standby, with a maximum of nine for 767 or 787 planes.

Nicholls says they would like to increase their numbers however it has been hard to recruit.

He is also thankful that he has never had to attend to a plane fire.

Although they have experienced light aircraft that belly landed on the runway which caused sparks, there was no fire.

“We’ve had some near misses.”

Nicholls recalls many years ago a DC10 coming in with no indication on the flight deck that its other landing gear was down. Unable to land, the plane was asked to come in low and a spotlight from the weather station was used to confirm all wheels were down. The plane then safely turned around and landed.

Another memorable event was a 747 experiencing hydraulic failure. With all Rescue Firefighters on standby, the aircraft landed safely using only its reverse thrusts. Buses were then sent to the plane to disembark the passengers.

Years ago, a microlight plane crashed, though thankfully no one was seriously injured.

Despite such incidents, Nicholls emphasises the safety of aircraft and the professionalism of the service provided to planes landing at the airport.

He eagerly awaits Monday’s golden jubilee celebration marking the official opening of the international airport.

“It’s been a long time experiencing this every day, every year.”