Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 35, September 1991

By Lynnette Munn

Following a request from the Department of Agriculture in October 1949, the Hauraki Aero Club arranged a demonstration of aerial top-dressing. This subsequently took place in January 1950 on the property of Mr Colin Kelly at Puriri, with Mr Ron Graham piloting the aircraft.

The Department of Agriculture had arranged tests to check the spread of fertilizer and the large gathering of farmers were impressed with the results.

Fred Sawyer, a dairy farmer at Kaihere, who had been the Club's instructor, was, at this time in the process of putting a sharemilker on his farm. He needed full time work after leaving his farm and if he was to remain available to the club as instructor, needed employment in Thames. This was the main motivation for the Club's interest in starting aerial topdressing as it would provide Fred Sawyer with employment and thus retain his services as Club instructor.

It was considered necessary to form a company rather than have the Club run the business. The Club purchased shares in the business and, after raising additional finance, the Thames Aerial Topdressing Company came into being. The Company Directors were FW Sawyer, B Oliver and CL Robertson and there were about 12 shareholders in addition to the Aero Club.

The Company commenced actual operations on 6 October 1950 when Fred Sawyer spread 20 tons of fertilizer on the property of Mr Percy Hansen at Wharehoe. After only a few weeks of operation the Tiger Moth crashed due to fuel shortage as a result of a faulty fuel gauge reading. This was a great setback to the Company but the aircraft was repaired and the company started to expand.

A second pilot, Cyril Hall was engaged in 1951 and not long afterwards a third, Lindsay Wheeler.

The company soon ran into difficulties in securing servicing for its aircraft. It decided in May 1951 that it must have its own maintenance set up. It replied to an advertisement by Mr AC Finch who desired to come to New Zealand and it was promptly arranged for him to be the Company's maintenance engineer.

In 1952 Fred Sawyer was on holiday in the Far North and was impressed with the potential for aerial topdressing in this area, and noted the fact that no aerial operator was serving the area. He took an aircraft into the area and the Company purchased a 4-wheeldrive Ford which it equipped as a loader for this district. He sited several airstrips and pioneered aerial sowing between Dargaville and Kaitaia. Agents were appointed to book work in these two towns. The Kaitaia agent very soon decided to go into business on his own account and started a rival company.

There were some difficulties in operating so far from the Thames base, but the Company persevered. In the early stages their senior pilot, Cyril Hall lived in the area in a caravan with his loader driver. When the Air Services Licensing Authority was set up, it was persuaded of the Company's pioneering efforts in the North, and included it in the Company's licensed territory. During the 1950's the Company's business became concentrated around Dargaville with aircraft based on the Dargaville aerodrome and a pilot resident in that town.

In 1960 an Area Manager, Jim Cragg was appointed at Dargaville. The business developed rapidly and in 1965 Barry Gillespie was appointed Area Manager at a further base at Warkworth. The tonnage grew to a stage where two aircraft were on the Warkworth aerodrome in 1967.

In 1965 the Company purchased a 50 acre run-off at Te Wharau, 4 miles out of Dargaville. It constructed an airfield and built a hangar 90 feet by 60 feet plus an office block and crew room because there was insufficient space available on the aerodrome at Dargaville for these facilities. Engineering staff were then transferred to Te Wharau to service both Dargaville and Warkworth aircraft.

In 1967, the Glen Murray Topdressing Company Ltd., a syndicate of farmers based at Pukekohe, was experiencing difficulties in that their Piper aircraft were no longer competitive, and it was difficult for their directors to staff and manage the business as well as run their farms. Tatco was approached to take over and it purchased their assets and goodwill.Mr Lance Clark was appointed Area Manager at Pukekohe and a Fletcher aircraft and loader were based on a private airfield in the area. This gave the Company a total of five bases, fairly evenly spaced throughout its licensed territory. Tatco amalgamated with another topdressing company, Fieldair Ltd., based at Palmerston North in 1972. Then in 1977 some 4500 customers bought out the original shareholders and the whole operation converted to a co-operative. Today it operates under the name Fieldair HoldingsLtd.


The Thames Aerial Topdressing Company Reunion, held at Thames on 5,6,7 October 1990 was a resounding success, with former employees coming from far and wide.

The Company's celebrations were held at the Racecourse, commencing on Friday evening with a barbecue and opportunity to meet up with one another. Registrations and morning tea continued all through Saturday morning, with the detailed pictorial and articled display of the history of the Company from 1950 through to the 1980's, compiled and assembled by Lynnette Munn, the Reunion organiser, creating a great deal of interest.

At 1400 hours everyone assembled at the aerodrome for an aerial display. With the exception of Mossie Smith's Pitt's Special, the aeroplanes involved were representative of the types of aircraft used by Tatco through the years. Four Tiger Moths and a Cessna 180 came from Ardmore to assist in making the celebrations the success they were, ably piloted by Lindsay King, Les Marshall, Tony Renouf, Bill Saunderson and Roy Poole Even for people not closely involved with aeroplanes, there was something strangely heart-stopping about seeing and hearing those old Tigers doing a flypast, acknowledging the people below and the reason behind their presence on the airfield that had seen the founders of Tatco similarly assembled exactly forty years earlier when Colvin Robertson (Secretary), Basil Oliver (Chairman) watched Fred Sawyer (Pilot/Manager) take off in Tiger Moth ZK-AW to sow the Company's very first load of fertilizer on Percy Hansen's farm at Kopu! Sadly Basil died about two years ago, but his son, Carrick and daughter-in-law Margaret, were able to be part of the reunion during the day on Saturday.

A hum of engines a little later heralded the arrival of the entire representation of Tatco aircraft. Led by the four Tiger Moths, the others followed in close formation - Keith Hale in a now Fieldair Fletcher, Roy Poole in his Cessna 180, and Paul Miller piloting his helicopter, the contingent executed an impressive fly-past.

Lindsay King then thrilled everyone present with a wonderful handling display, flying his Tiger Moth to the limits of its capability, followed by Keith Hale demonstratingtheflying capability of the Fletcher in a spraying role. An exceptional performance in handling and aircraft capability.

Paul Miller, likewise, showed the crowd just what a "chopper" was capable of in the hands of a professional, with a brilliant display, then Mossie Smith took his Pitt's Special up to totally seal the afternoon's excitement with a splendid exhibition of acrobatic manoeuvres - a very polished performance.

Back at the Racecourse at 1700 hours the 207 guests for the evening began to arrive. Welcomed at the door by Lynnette Munn, all the ladies were presented with an orchid spray to wear. Though essentially a weekend for "the boys", it was felt that the ladies deserved a little special attention. As Fred Sawyer later remarked in his speech, the contribution of wives of pilots and loader drivers, especially, to the aerial topdressing industry, was often overlooked and deserved to be acknowledged at this function.

Two current pilots - Charlie Stevenson and Bruce Barnes, piped the guests into the dining area, then returned to pipe in the two surviving founders - Colvin Robertson and his wife Lois, Fred Sawyer and Lynnette, the reunion committee, and the Guest Speaker for the evening, Mr Guy Robertson, retired Managing Director of Robertson Air Service (Hamilton), and his wife, Margie.

Barry Hinton, Area Manager at Thames for twenty years until his retirement in 1985, had been elected M C for the evening and carried out these duties in a professional and thoroughly relaxed manner.

Following the speeches given by George Dunn (Loader driver in the '60's), Guy Robertson and Fred Sawyer, dinner was served, followed by the cutting of the birthday cake. This was formally done by Fred and Colvin, together with their first pilot employed in 1951, Cyril Hall, and Nellie Haigh, the widow of their long-employed Engineering Manager. A presentation of a photo plaque was then given to the "parents" of the Company on behalf of everyone present.

The evening continued with great hilarity and dancing until the early hours of the morning.

Sunday morning was much quieter as many called in on their way out of town for a cup of coffee and to say farewell to old friends - and some new friends - after a thoroughly magic weekend.

The reunion was organised by Lynnette Munn and her supporting committee, Barry and Rae Hinton and Lance and Marie Clark.

The first TATCO Tiger Moth ZK-AVV

The first TATCO Tiger Moth ZK-AVV, and 3 ton Bedford loader truck. 1950

Thames Aerial Topdressing Company
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 35, September 1991
The first TATCO Tiger Moth ZK-AVV
Fred Sawyer (at right) and a former employee, Peter Sharpe

Fred Sawyer (at right) and a former employee, Peter Sharpe at the Reunion

Thames Aerial Topdressing Company
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 35, September 1991
Fred Sawyer (at right) and a former employee, Peter Sharpe