We Remember Air Commodore (Rtd) Dr Leonard James Thompson MBE

Len Thompson Hypobaric Chamber. RNZAF Whenuapai.


Air Commodore Len Thompson, SN 920114, had a long and distinguished career in military Aviation but above all in Aviation Medicine, spanning from 1951 to 1994, becoming the first doctor in the country to make Aviation Medicine a full time career. Len started flying in July 1950 at the Otago Aero Club on an ATC scholarship, prior to joining No 3 CMT Aircrew Course fling Tiger Moths at Taieri Air Force Station. He converted to the Harvard on posting to No 4 Territorial Sqn, completing his “Wings” course on No 1 University course at RNZAF Station Wigram. With Kenneth Melvin, a fellow medical student, he graduated with “Special Distinction”.

In April 1954, on posting back to No 4 (T) Sqn, Len completed a conversion to the P51 Mustang. At the same time, he attended the Otago Medical School in Dunedin, qualifying in 1957. It was inevitable that he joined the Air Force as a ‘regular’ which took place in 1960. His first posting was back to RNZAF Station Wigram, where he took over as OC of the Aviation Medicine Unit (AMU) in July that year. Pilot currency was maintained by flying gliders but also the Harvard or the Devon to the monthly Flying Equipment Committee meetings in Wellington. He also converted to the Vampire and completed a Canberra familiarisation course.

After attending the 1961 Paris 3rd Congress of the International Board of Aviation Medicine (later renamed the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine, IAASM), he visited the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine in Farnborough and became acquainted with the British AvMed leaders of those days. In 1963, he took a Masters in Aviation Medicine in the United States catching up with the rest of the leaders in that field. He validated his New Zealand Commercial Pilot Licence in the USA and became heavily involved with parachuting, both as a ‘jump’ pilot and as a sport parachutist. Back in New Zealand in May 1966, he was posted to the Defence Environmental Medicine Unit (DEMU) at Clark House (Hobsonville), to which AMU had been relocated. His first job was to oversee refurbishment of the site for the new Vacudyne hypobaric chamber which still remains in use today.

Dr Thompson’s achievements are multiple: Officer Commanding AMU over three separate postings, Director General Defence Medical Services until 1980 and then Air New Zealand’s Principal Medical officer until 1994. Offshore, Len Thompson was Commanding Officer of New Zealand Forces Medical Team in Bon Song Viet Nam in 1969 where he was involved in a comprehensive tuberculosis control programme. He also set up the New Zealand Forces Hospital in Singapore in 1975. In 1984, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Dr Thompson was the first New Zealand doctor to be elected as a member if IAASM, serving first as a Director and later as Secretary General in 1994. He was also vice-chairman of IATA’s (International Air Transport Association) Medical Advisory Committee and founding Chairman of the International Airlines Medical Advisory Committee.

Air Cdre Thompson was appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1969 for services to Aviation Medicine and, in particular, Search and Rescue. His outstanding contribution saw many highlights, often in treacherous conditions, including undertaking New Zealand’s first helicopter winching rescue from a boat. In 2015, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded him the Paul Tissandier Diploma, presented to people who have served the cause of aviation by their work, initiative and devotion. The epitome of a ‘flying doctor’, Len Thompson had a 3/4 scale replica Mustang built for him in Rangiora. He was seen flying her regularly in the Bay of Islands, fulfilling his lifelong dream to have his own beloved Mustang. Len retired with his wife Colleen to Whangarei, Northland. On 5th June, whilst singing with her on their 40th wedding anniversary, Len suffered a cardiovascular event passing away. RIP.

Air Commodore (Rtd) Dr Leonard James Thompson MBE, AE, RNZAF, QHP, MBCHB, MSc (AvMed) FACASM, FASMA, FRAeS.  Dunedin 1932 – Whangarei 2023