Page 1: Biography
Roberts, Geoffrey Newland
Military aviator and leader, airline manager
This biography, written by Brian Lockstone, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Born at Inglewood, Taranaki, on 8 December 1906, Geoffrey Newland Roberts was to serve two air forces and the international airline industry with great distinction. His father, Charles Oxford Roberts, had migrated from Britain in 1897 and settled in Inglewood, where he married Hylda Marion Newland. After trying dairy farming he opened a hardware store. After two years at New Plymouth Boys’ High School, Geoffrey joined a local merchant firm, Newton King Limited, rising to head its motor department at Inglewood when only 19. In his spare time he enjoyed swimming and climbing, notably on nearby Mt Egmont.
Roberts joined the Territorial Force in 1921, becoming a corporal in the 1st Taranaki Regiment. He was keen on flying, however, and in 1928 sailed to Britain, where he was accepted by the RAF on a short-service commission for pilot training. Graduating with distinction, he flew light bombers in Britain, and then over India’s mountainous north-west. Flights to altitudes of 15,000 feet without oxygen in open, single-engined biplanes were frequent, and his sturdy physique and endurance served him well.
Granted three months’ leave, Roberts returned to New Zealand via Rangoon, where he met a young Englishwoman, Phyllis Hamilton Bird. They were married at Gosforth, Northumberland, on 10 November 1934, and were to have a son and daughter. Declining an extension of his RAF commission, he joined the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company and then the Shell Petroleum Company, which eventually posted him to Christchurch.
Roberts joined the Territorial Air Force with the rank of flying officer in February 1937. As war approached, he transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He was appointed to squadron command in November 1939. In March 1940 the territorial units were consolidated into No 1 General Reconnaissance Squadron, stationed at Whenuapai, Auckland, with Roberts in command. With war in the Pacific looming he was posted as officer commanding RNZAF Fiji, also responsible for Allied air operations; he served until early 1943.
A home command preceded a return to the Pacific in 1944, first to Allied headquarters in the Solomon Islands, then as commander of the New Zealand Air Task Force, with the rank of air commodore. Working with senior United States officers honed his diplomatic skills. Mindful of his India days, when servicemen rarely knew the reasons for their dangerous missions, he instituted regular briefings to ensure those under his command understood why they were fighting. He was present at the surrender of Japanese forces at Rabaul. For his wartime service he was awarded the Air Force Cross and made a CBE. The United States honoured him with appointment to the Legion of Merit.
At the end of the war Roberts returned to the Shell company in Wellington, but soon applied for the position of general manager of Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL), based in Auckland. Formed in 1940 by the New Zealand, Australian and British governments, TEAL flew two Short S-30 flying boats between Auckland and Sydney, and after 1941 provided New Zealand’s only civil air link with the outside world. Roberts took over in May 1946, when TEAL seemed unwanted by Australia and Britain, who saw it a threat to Qantas Empire Airways and the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Even the New Zealand government was ambivalent, handing vital south Pacific routes to the newly formed New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC).
TEAL had struggled to maintain wartime services with two flying boats, and shareholders had thwarted management plans to modernise. The company was also shattered by the sudden death of its founding chairman, N. S. Falla, in 1945. Roberts’s first task was to re-equip and review. Unable to buy land-based aircraft, TEAL soldiered on with flying boats. Roberts won back the Pacific routes, without the subsidies required by NAC, and in the early 1950s convinced the National government not to sell the company. Land-based Douglas DC-6s were finally secured in 1954, and five years later Roberts oversaw the first step into the jet age with turbo-prop Lockheed Electras.
Throughout the 1950s he played a pivotal role in promoting the case for a solely New Zealand-owned airline, an aim that was eventually achieved in 1961. Four years later its name was changed to Air New Zealand. A constant theme of Roberts’s frequent speeches was the economic significance of the company to New Zealand. He advocated ‘orderly development and a reasonable measure of protection for a New Zealand-domiciled industry which, economically, is of great benefit to the nation’.
Mindful of his health and the need to inject new blood into management, Roberts resigned as general manager of TEAL in May 1958. He became a director, serving as deputy chairman from 1961, then as chairman from 1965 until his retirement 10 years later. That decade saw rapid expansion, with the first jets, Douglas DC-8s, then wide-bodied DC-10s carrying the flag further into Australia, Asia and North America. The next target, he considered, should have been South America.
His robust, cheerful frame was a familiar sight at industry gatherings. Readily accessible to reporters, he eschewed personal publicity but was assiduous in advancing the cause of his beloved airline. Principled and non-partisan, he never shrank from political controversy, rounding on the Labour government when it appointed a Wellington lawyer, John Jeffries, as his successor in 1975, arguing that commercial experience was necessary for the task. He later maintained that the chairman, and not the chief executive, should have resigned after the 1979 Mt Erebus disaster. One major disappointment was the failure of successive governments to merge Air New Zealand and NAC, despite vigorous prodding by Roberts, who sat on both boards. The merger was eventually achieved in 1978, after his retirement.
In 1970 Roberts was elected a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, London, and in 1973 he was knighted for his services to the aviation industry. From 1973 to 1975 he was president of the International Air Transport Association. In retirement at his farm, Puketiro, at Wellsford, he remained a director of several companies and was actively engaged in charity work. In 1978 he presented colours to his old RNZAF squadron at Whenuapai. An old friend, journalist Noel Holmes, wrote his biography, To fly a desk , in 1982, describing Roberts as the ‘father of Air New Zealand’. He died at Algies Bay on 27 August 1995, survived by his wife and children. At his request, his ashes were scattered over Mt Egmont.