3 min read

How a helicopter gets made (and what it means for New Zealand school leaders)

Every year, we give principals something very special - a wooden helicopter.  

Part of the Strategic Leadership for Principals Programme celebrations, the helicopter is a reminder of the lessons learned throughout the year. Taking a step back from the day-to-day, thinking about the big picture and being aware of what a leader does and does not need to be directly involved in - that’s the helicopter view we try to develop and instill.  

They’re carefully crafted, and always appreciated – we have seen many a wooden helicopter in the background of some our recent Zoom calls with principals!  

But where exactly do they come from? Who makes this fleet of hand-crafted helicopters? The answer is Tony Williams from Northland – and we’ve got the details on how he makes them. 

The hobby that keeps on giving 

For the last seven years, Tony has been a woodworking hobbyist, operating out of his garage in Northland.  

“I belong to an arts and crafts group, a volunteer thing – you put your work up and sell it. One day I was volunteering at the shop, which I do one day a month, and someone from Springboard Trust came in. 

They asked me, do you make helicopters? And I told them nope, never have, but give me a couple of days to mock something up.”  

The rest, of course, is history. That was in 2018, and since then Tony has supplied Springboard with hundreds of helicopters that we give to the principals we work with

“I do woodworking because it’s a hobby, something I enjoy doing now that I’m retired. The opportunity to do this with Springboard is an extra bonus – it's great hearing the wonderful feedback from principals about what the helicopters mean to them, and it’s a nice way to top up the pension!”  

But enjoying the work and the work being easy are two different things – Tony's work that goes into each helicopter is simply incredible.  

Assembling the fleet  

When he first worked on the helicopters, Tony was beginning from scratch.  

“I hadn’t done anything like this before, so I drew up quite a few sketches. A friend of mine gave me some tips, and then it was time to start.” 

“There’s the bodies, the bases, the dowels (pegs), and of course the rotors. It took a while to make them at first, but I’ve got all the designs saved and now I can make them all over a few months. I actually made 10 bases this morning – if I feel like it, I could get another 10 done this afternoon!”  

But beyond the intricacies of making wooden helicopters, Tony prefers to work with some specific materials.  

“Every helicopter is made out of recycled wood. I get it from friends, sometimes beat-up furniture from the SPCA shop I volunteer at – wherever I can find it!”  

“That often ends up being the main barrier, the cost of materials. I love making these, and they’re going to great people – I’m happy not to charge too much for my labour, but materials can sometimes be a bit of a roadblock. Wood is extremely expensive these days.”  

Tony’s incredible work hasn’t just been noticed by us, either. He notes that people have seen his work and asked for all manner of things – small rocking horses, trucks and toys, even a folding clothesline for kids!  

“I had to invent that one actually! Like an idiot, I asked if they wanted it to fold up and they said that would be amazing – it’s been quite a reasonable seller in the end.”  

Of course, for Tony this is a hobby – not a full-time job.  

“I don’t want it to become a business – it's something to keep me going, and people seem to be enjoying what I do.”  

In Springboard Trust’s case, those people are hundreds of principals across New Zealand who own an intricate, hand-crafted piece of Tony’s passion and hard work – reminding them of how they can make a difference for all their students.  

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