Former fighter pilot Theon Te Koeti usually spends his time flying Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau around the world by private jet at a moment’s notice.
But after returning home in early July to visit his parents, the Kiwi pilot instead found himself grounded in an Auckland hotel when his wife Paula unexpectedly went into labour.
Daughter Tia was born prematurely at 34 weeks on July 15, while Te Koeti had to watch via Facetime from his Covid-enforced quarantine 14,000 kms away.
Speaking to Stuff this week, Te Koeti said mum and baby were doing well, and he hopes they will be out of hospital by the time he returns home to Ottawa in early August.
Missing being at her birth had been a stroke of bad luck as he’d returned home to spend time with an ill family member in New Zealand.
Te Koeti grew up in Pleasant Point, South Canterbury, where he was head boy at the local high school which closed in 2004.
As a youngster he worked for shearing contractor Allan Scott as a shearing gang presser and rousabout during the school holidays.
But it was in the skies rather than the styes where Te Koeti found his true calling. In his early teens he gained a flying scholarship while a cadet in the Air Training Corps in Timaru, and flew his first solo flight at the age of 16.
He was selected for the Royal New Zealand Air Force while still in his last year at high school and started officer training at the age of 17 in 2003.
Te Koeti spent six months at Woodbourne air base near Blenheim and eight months at Ōhakea before moving to Canada in 2005 and joining the Royal Canadian Air Force where he gained his full military pilot stripes.
Te Koeti‘s mum was born in Canada, and he has dual citizenship.
He became a Nato training instructor for the Hawk light fighter jets. He also trained would-be Air Force fighter pilots at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Te Koeti started working as a pilot for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in August 2019, flying 604 and 650 Challenger Bombardier jets.
The trips are undertaken “smoothly and quietly” at about 12,000 metres high, and the jet travels at around 900kms per hour.
His job often entails flying at a moment’s notice to Europe, the Arctic or whereever Trudeau and his ministers require.
“The Prime Minister is very affable and friendly he has a popular personality where ever he goes,” says Te Koeti of his famous boss. “He’s probably more relaxed than other world leaders.”
He said Trudeau was happy to have selfies taken with locals with “a big smile on his face”.
Trudeau enjoys a warm relationship with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, with the two leaders frequently feted as a compassionate contrast to more populist global leaders.
Te Koeti occasionally flies United Nations officials and conducts medical evacuation missions for Canadian military members wounded overseas.
“I’m very lucky, it’s a fairly sought after job,” says Te Koeti.
It was a lengthy process to get into the 412 squadron which was part of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Te Koeti said.
On a three-year contract, Te Koeti said he was happy with where he was career-wise and sometimes thought it was all too good to be true.
Te Koeti describes Canada as being like New Zealand on steroids and said the scenery was beautiful, especially from the sky.
He’d like to raise Tia in New Zealand but that was up for negotiation with his Canadian wife, Paula.
“I still love New Zealand and miss family. I’d love to come back. It’s one of the best places to raise kids.
“I’ve been blown away at how well New Zealand is doing compared to the rest of the world. I fly to some trouble spots and no-one is doing remotely as well.”