Frederick John Lucas was born at Dunedin on 18 August 1915, the second child of Ethel Jean Smith and her husband, Charles Frederick Lucas, a farmer. He attended Tuapeka Mouth School and had one year’s secondary education at Otago Boys’ High School, then returned to the family farm to work. While in Dunedin Fred had enjoyed watching the aeroplanes at Taieri airfield, and he now began flying lessons. On 21 June 1935 he obtained his private pilot’s licence. Soon after, he applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), but was unsuccessful because of his limited secondary education. Still intent on flying, he worked his passage to England and was granted a short-service commission in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in December 1936.
After pilot training, Lucas was posted to No 10 Squadron at Dishforth, Yorkshire, in August 1937. To pass the RAF’s medical examination he had had his teeth removed, and it became one of his party tricks to swivel his dentures in his mouth. This, and his resemblance to the cartoon character, earned him the nickname ‘Popeye’. On 10 December 1938, at Barnes, London, he married a New Zealand cousin, Joan Emily Chapman Smith; they were to have one daughter.
In July 1939, when experienced pilots were needed to deliver 30 newly acquired Vickers-Armstrongs Wellington I bombers to New Zealand, Popeye Lucas transferred to the RNZAF. When war was declared, however, the planes and crews were seconded to the RAF, and became the nucleus of No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, based at Feltwell, East Anglia. Lucas, whose bomber was adorned with a large painting of ‘Popeye the Sailor’, quickly completed 30 missions over Germany. When the squadron’s first raid against Berlin was planned he was determined to participate and sought an extension of his tour of duty. Delays meant that this raid – his 37th operation – did not take place until 23 September 1940. He was awarded a DFC in November. On his second tour, following promotion to squadron leader in May 1941, he commanded A flight, and his ‘outstanding keenness’ and ‘courage and perseverance’ were rewarded with a bar to his DFC in April 1942.
On 15 December 1941 Joan Lucas died and in March 1942 Fred was posted back to New Zealand, where his parents were to look after his daughter. He became commander of No 1 General Reconnaissance Squadron at Whenuapai air base, and in 1943 helped form the RNZAF’s first air transport unit, No 40 (Transport) Squadron. Over the next year he pioneered air routes for the supply of food, mail, equipment and personnel to New Zealand forces around the Pacific. Flying the RNZAF’s first Douglas C-47 Dakota, Lucas became aware of the potential for civil air services, especially for cargo, after the war. On 20 April 1943, at Auckland, he married Loraine (Lorie) Jean Flansburgh-Washbourne, a member of the New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. After Fred’s discharge in October 1945, with the rank of wing commander, the couple began farming at Pukepito, South Otago; they were to have four sons.
Popeye Lucas was keen to continue flying. In September 1947, with fellow pilot Bill Hewett, he established a freight, scenic and charter company at Queenstown. Later they diversified into top-dressing and other aerial farm work. But the company was under-capitalised and, although work was readily available, they had difficulty acquiring the necessary government licences. It was not until July 1950 that they were granted a licence to operate a twice-weekly passenger service between Queenstown and Dunedin. It was a success and in 1955 they began to make daily flights.
Tourism began to play a large part in the company’s business during the 1950s. Scenic flights over Milford Sound were popular with overseas visitors and in 1952 the company built the first airstrip there; the government took over its maintenance in 1956. Lucas and Hewett also had planes based at Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, in south Westland, to accommodate the demand for scenic flights. The company expanded rapidly: by 1955 they had six pilots and in 1957 Lucas spent more than 40 weeks away from home. In early 1960, however, tensions between the partners led to Fred’s departure.
In April that year the Lucas family moved to Cecil Peak station, on the western shore of Lake Wakatipu. In spite of their lack of high country sheepfarming experience, declining wool returns and rising labour costs, Fred Lucas was optimistic about the station’s future. In 1961 they embarked on a tourism venture, renting refurbished shearers’ quarters to families on holiday and using half the homestead as a guesthouse. The main access to the station was by boat, and in 1962 they bought a bus to transport tourists from the wharf to the homestead. The venture was so successful that the following year they needed a second bus, and during the 1964–65 summer season 13,000 people visited the station. Farming remained only marginally profitable, and when an exceptionally cold winter in 1968 killed three-quarters of the station’s sheep, Lucas sold the remainder and concentrated on cattle farming and tourism. He had relinquished his commercial pilot’s licence in 1965.
In 1975 Fred and Lorie Lucas sold the station and moved to Lower Moutere, near Nelson, where they farmed for 10 years before retiring to the outskirts of Moutere. In 1986 he experienced the first of several strokes. He died on 4 October 1993 at Motueka, survived by his wife and children.