Frederick Patrick Ladd was born on 27 October 1908 at Warkworth, north of Auckland, the eldest child of Thomas Joseph Frederick James Ladd, a locomotive engineer, and Christina Pepper, an Irish waitress, who married in 1911. After periods in Auckland and Wellington, the family shifted to Hamilton in 1918 where Fred attended Hamilton High School for one year. When attempts at several professions proved unsuccessful, he joined his father’s carrying business in 1925. On his father’s death in 1926, Fred managed the company and continued to do so for the next 15 years. He married Mabel Agnes Green, a typist, on 7 January 1933 in Hamilton, and their 56-year marriage was a remarkable working partnership. They had one daughter.
As a child Fred Ladd had hero-worshipped his father and later attributed an early determination to fly to a desire to outdo him. In 1932 he became involved with gliding, but could not afford powered flying lessons until 1939. His late start in aviation meant he had to battle for the rest of his career against age discrimination, which was not helped by his hair turning prematurely grey.
Nearly two years after the outbreak of the Second World War Ladd joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He was told he was too old to be a pilot, but after much study he graduated to pilot training, at the Elementary Flying Training School, Whenuapai, and gained his wings on 11 June 1942. He served with No 15 Squadron in Tonga and at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands until early 1943, when he was posted to No 30 Squadron. His first operational sortie was in March 1944, when his squadron attacked the Japanese at Kavieng, New Ireland. His aircraft was hit by ground fire and shrapnel on several occasions. Ladd’s 33rd and final mission was on 22 May 1944.
Fred Ladd stayed in the RNZAF to continue flying for as long as possible, serving in Fiji and Western Samoa. He survived a crash landing at Ohakea in late 1944 and attributed his ability to open the jammed canopy of the burning aircraft to God giving him superhuman strength. During his long flying career he was involved in many serious forced landings and these experiences deepened his active Christian faith.
Ladd joined the recently established New Zealand National Airways Corporation in May 1948 and for the next three years was a senior route captain on the Dunedin–Invercargill scheduled service. In August 1951 he became the first chief pilot for the new Fiji Airways. Pioneering a new airline best suited Ladd’s extroverted, confident and gregarious personality as well as his ambitions. However, he resigned in late 1954 when a court of inquiry found that his negligence was responsible for an emergency landing.
In December that year Ladd commenced work for a new amphibious airline, Tourist Air Travel, at Mechanics Bay, Auckland. His 13 years there made him a household name in New Zealand. He was not only a pilot, but the chief promoter of the airline, and in this capacity was instrumental in its success. Ladd loved encouraging passengers to experience flying as fun, and to counter their unease at the surging water around the Widgeon’s windows he coined his famous phrase, ‘a shower of spray and we’re away’, and many other rhyming couplets. The company pioneered non-scheduled services to all parts of the Hauraki Gulf and performed ambulance, charter, freight and scenic flying.
Fred Ladd flew the duke of Edinburgh in February 1963 – the same year he was appointed an MBE. In 1965 he received the international Brackley memorial trophy in England for his services in the gulf. He flew his last Widgeon aircraft for Tourist Air Travel on 31 March 1967, having developed a legendary rapport with the people of the Hauraki Gulf. On his last day he broke the law by flying under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, but was discharged without conviction.
In 1967 he qualified as a helicopter pilot at Fort Worth, Texas, but was unable to secure a licence to start a new service in Auckland. In January 1969 he began a tourist amphibian service in Rotorua, and by 1971 had formed another new scenic flight charter operation, Captain Fred Ladd’s Volcanic Wunderflites. He joined Air Central in Taupo in April 1976 after Civil Aviation began pressuring him about his age, health and fitness. On 8 July 1977, with 21,109 flying hours, he grounded himself because of dizziness, and Civil Aviation withdrew his commercial pilot’s licence. Ladd then embarked upon a fitness regime and four-year unsuccessful campaign to get this returned. In the process he set national records for the over-70s in swimming and became a strong advocate for the rights of older people.
Fred Ladd was of average height with a stocky, strong build and a friendly, open face. In his younger days he represented Waikato in the New Zealand diving championships, and at indoor basketball and gymnastics. He made his first parachute jump in 1968 and became the president of the Sulphur City Skydivers Club shortly after. He was also a member of the Rotorua Aero Club and the Muscular Dystrophy Association of New Zealand. In 1976 he was appointed an OBE for his services to the tourist and aviation industries. In December 1983 he commenced gliding and in 1987 reflected, ‘Flying is a way of life that I couldn’t and wouldn’t be without’. One of New Zealand’s best-known aviators, Fred Ladd died of cancer in Taupo on 22 January 1989, survived by his wife and daughter.