Imagine a place where science, technology and engineering could be shared with the next generation from all walks of life, in an accessible and motivational way. Where interest and intrigue were championed by local government, and connections with local kura were a given. And where long-term, sustainable careers were a very real possibility for anyone who had the appetite.
Now imagine that this place was part of our own backyard in Kāpiti, and that the possibility of all of these opportunities was very much within our reach. We spoke to Shaun Johnson, CEO of Merlin Labs - an aviation technology company that began its life in Kāpiti - who let us know just how much of a possibility this scenario is for our community.
“I grew up in Kerikeri, where high-flying career opportunities aren’t readily available. I didn’t have any grand plans, so I joined the Air Force.
The attraction was the technology. This was in the late 80’s where a bit of a technology boom was happening. I had always been into electronics so as a young fella, being an avionics technician sounded appealing.
The great thing about joining the New Zealand Defence Force is that there are clear, achievable career paths there waiting for anyone who wants to climb the ladder. I spent four years doing my training and did well enough to be asked whether I wanted to become an engineering officer, which meant more study and a stint at a Melbourne University. That was where I realised my passion was more about leadership and designing systems integration, rather than fixing things.
From there I spent more than 25 years climbing the ranks in the Air Force, never spending more than two and a half years in one place. I led the NH90 helicopter procurement project, I worked with Skyhawks and Iroquois, was deployed to East Timor and the Solomons, and eventually came back and became the head of software compliance for the New Zealand Defence Force, meaning I was responsible for the certification of all the safety-critical aeronautical software.
I later went to the Civil Aviation Authority for six years and saw a lot of change. I had the pleasure of introducing a new technology team that was focused on helping advanced technology and new types of aircraft get off the ground - so to speak!
Then one day, while I was walking across the airfield at the Kāpiti Aero Club, I got a call from Matt George at Merlin Labs. Six interviews later I decided to take a leap of faith: in the middle of a pandemic, I joined a startup.
I was living in Kāpiti at the time, so Merlin Labs NZ - the exciting, international, aviation technology company propelling the future of fully autonomous flight - had its humble beginnings on the coast north of Wellington. But eventually, I felt the pull to my hometown. I think it was the appeal of giving something back to the next generation.
I ended up having a conversation with the Chief Executive of the Far North District Council and he explained how unemployment is a real problem, getting kids into high-value jobs is a problem… kids having dreams is a problem.
I wanted to do something to help change something there, and amazingly, after giving my two cents, Far North Holdings said they would build us a hangar. The council had asked ‘why Kerikeri?’, and the answer was two-fold. First, the terrain and the airspace, which is similar to Kāpiti, is ideal for the projects we were dreaming about. Second, there ended up being three of us from Kerikeri who incidentally all joined the Air Force and by chance had come back together. That combined interest in doing something in the place where we were from is a big part of why we’ve seen such success.
Having local support, including having the council on board and being enthusiastic about our vision, was instrumental to what we’ve been able to achieve.
They built us a brand new, purpose-built flight test facility, which we lease back off them, and we were able to put down roots. And a few months ago we had a big opening ceremony in Kerikeri which was wonderful to be part of.
A day before the opening ceremony we had a visit from a full immersion kura from the Far North come to visit. What I wanted to convey to them is that aviation is not just flying planes. There will still need to be engineers, baggage handlers and support people long after pilots are needed. We got the kids through the hangar and into the planes, and I got this one kid to start the plane which blew his mind. We then had some kai and one of the kids said he was keen on getting a job in aviation. Job done. I want to be doing more of that up there (and in Kāpiti) because when I see how quickly ideas can seed in these kids’ heads, I want to make sure all kids have the same opportunities.
A story like this demonstrates what happens when we work together as a community. I started as a techo on the shop floor fixing Iroquois and I ended up the Head of Certification for the Defence Force for all the aviation products. Representing New Zealand overseas was such a thrill. It’s proof that you can come from humble beginnings.
We are very consciously and genuinely connected with local runanga. It’s a family approach. If we want to be part of Northland, we have to be part of Northland. It’s been great because it’s a way to connect to youth that’s much more than rocking up to the school hall and speaking about something. It’s tangible. You don’t need aeroplanes to get people excited about avionics. This exact journey is happening right now in the north.
Another young guy wrote a really brave letter explaining why he wanted to come and get some exposure, and asked me for a job. I said absolutely. He’s got the nous to reach out and the appetite to put in the hard yards. He works for us three nights after school learning everything from fixing aircraft to loading freight planes, to certification. Next he will be helping to build a simulator.
If you fast forward to electrification, the world becomes greener through lots of little hops between little hubs. The domestic market can make the most of that, and Kāpiti is so amazingly placed. It’s close to the international airport, great distance for short hop freight and people. But the big one is that the regulator is right over the hill. So getting them to be part of the certification process is a dream. We’ve actually struggled in Kerikeri to get the regulator up our way!
I get that there are concerns about housing on the Coast, but there’s lots of land to do that on. Once you lose an airfield you’ll never get it back. Two years ago when I first got engaged with the Kāpiti Air Urban team, I reached out to Solarworks who supply solar panels, and they did some quick maths on placing some panels on the airfield - the spots that aren’t any good for buildings cause of the proximity to aircraft, but isn’t used by aircraft - it’s the buffer zone. The energy you could generate for the area is incredible. It’s not just an airfield. It’s an opportunity.
In Kāpiti there’s so much generosity that the community is possibly not aware of. Youth trips, young eagles - anyone can come. And the planes that are offered up for free for their use for these moments. People are passionate about getting young people of all backgrounds into this industry.
There is so much opportunity to create a truly awesome hub that the whole community, and New Zealand, could be proud of.