Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 56, September 2012
(by Graham Watton)
In these modern days the Paeroa district lays under the flight path between Auckland and Bay of Plenty and there is never an hour goes by that some form of aircraft is seen, be it helicopters, small planes, passenger aircraft, passing overhead. Large jumbo jets are also seen, either gliding into land at Auckland International Airport or powering their way to overseas destinations.
Paeroa's connection with aviation history goes back 90 years, when on May 11, 1922, the first aircraft landed in Mr T. P. Vulgar's lease-hold property, opposite the Paeroa College. Owned by the Walsh Bros., the AVO 100hp 3-seater, was flown by Captain Fowler, with his co-pilot being Lieutenant L. E. Tatton.
This visit created huge interest in the district and while the aircraft was in Paeroa for the weekend it took numerous local residents on flights over the area, these cost from 1gn (₤1/1/- or $2.10) a flight. For many it was their first chance to get close to an aeroplane and they marvelled at the way it took off and landed. For the passengers it was a life-time memory.
For the next seven years residents could only look up at an increasing number of aircraft flying overhead between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty.
On April 16, 1929, a de Havilland Moth, piloted by Captain D. McGregor, DFC and Bar, flew from Te Aroha and landed on the Paeroa race course. For two days the pilot and his aircraft was kept busy taking local residents on flights over the district. One passenger took a movie film of the district. (Any ideas where this piece of film may be?-Editor). After two busy days Captain McGregor left for Thames.
Interest in aircraft was gathering pace, especially when four planes from the Auckland Aero Club landed at the Paeroa race course in October, 1929. The pilots and crew meet with representatives of the Paeroa Borough Council, Ohinemuri County Council and the Paeroa Chamber of Commerce. The main topic of discussion was a suitable airfield for the Paeroa district.
Two suitable sites were identified. One was a 40-acre (16ha) site of Maori land on the Paeroa side of Taharua Marae in Old Te Aroha Road (Rotokohu Road), but it was thought it would be difficult to obtain. The other was Government-owned land in Puke Road, but this would need some considerable levelling work to be suitable. Both sites had the advantage of being within the borough. It was also felt that the stretch of Waihou River below the Puke Bridge would be suitable for sea-planes to land and take-off.
Following the visit the Paeroa Borough Council established a committee to investigate both sites and other possible areas. The council was also seeking to promote a local aero club, but a report from the Hamilton Aero Club advised against such a move as the time was not suitable.
In May, 1930 Miss Ina Wight of Paeroa became the first woman member of the Auckland Aero Club and also the first aviatrix in Auckland to gain her A licence.
The versatility of aircraft being used by businessmen to keep out-of-district meeting appointments was amply demonstrated in early 1933. Captain J. D. Hewitt of Kaihere flew to Paeroa, landed at the racecourse, attended a hearing of the Mortgage Adjustment Committee, and returned home after the meeting. Later the same year an Auckland businessman landed his plane next to Mr S. J. Hedge's home in Te Aroha Road, to conduct business. Unfortunately he had trouble stopping his machine and some damage was done to canvas covering the body of the plane. He returned to Auckland safely.
Many district residents travelled to Athenree to welcome Sir Kingsford Smith and his "Southern Cross" in late January, 1933, as he toured New Zealand following his triumphant flight across the Tasman Sea from Australia. He was joined by the Waikato Aviation Club's de Soutter "Aorangi" and the Wellington Aero Club's WACO aircraft. All three were kept busy making scenic flights.
The Paeroa Aero Club was formed in May, 1933, with eight flying members, 38 associated members and four juniors. The club, in its quest for facilities, approached the Paeroa Chamber of Commerce, but this organisation considered it was not the opportune time to spend public money. No doubt owing to the onset of the Great Depression, unfortunately the club slowly folded.
Also in August, 1933, the first recorded parachute jump was made over Paeroa by Scotty Fraser. The first was on August 27, and the next day he made two descents. The first he somersaulted several times, before a small chute opened followed by a large chute. The second jump he made from a much higher altitude.
Following the Auckland businessman's rather lucky escape from serious consequences, the call for better landing facilities gathered pace. This was especially so when a wind change cut short chartered flights from the race course.
However, with the Great Depression gripping New Zealand, the question of an airfield in the district was moved to the "back-burner" until September, 1939, when the Ohinemuri County Council decided to approach the Piako County Council seeking a suitable area of land. With the East Coast Airways planes flying overhead each day it was thought these aircraft could provide a suitable air service for the developing Thames Valley region.
Then came the outbreak of the Second World War and any plans of airfields in the district were placed back in the pigeon-hole.
With the war heading for an end, in November, 1944, the Paeroa Borough Council contacted the Air Department for information on an airport for the district. One of the conditions was that there must the three runways at least 600 yards (550m) long.
The Council was looking at the Opatito Block adjacent to Junction Road, but it was not suitable for a municipal landing strip as its only runway was some 880 yards (805m) long. The Ministry of Works was also requested to check the suitability of the Pereniki Bend for an airfield.
A sub-branch of the Hauraki Aero Club, which was based at Thames airfield, was formed in Paeroa early in 1947 with Mr A. C. Boulton chairman and Mr R. J. W. Clark the secretary. A couple of months later an attempt form a glider club in Paeroa failed as there were only three interested people to attend the inaugural meeting.
In April, 1950, the pilot of a Tauranga Aero Club's Tiger Moth, "ran out of day light" on a flight from Auckland to his home base, and landed at the race course. The pilot spent the night in Paeroa and took off next morning for his destination.
In February, 1952, another plane landed at the race course and the pilot, Peter Rowley of Timaru, picked up his brother, Herb, a local stock agent, and flew him around the Coromandel Peninsula.
Such visits kept stimulating interest in an airfield in the district. The Borough Council investigated an area of 200 acres (81ha) north of the town as a possible site, while the local Chamber of Commerce advocated a light plane airstrip for Paeroa, especially when the Thames airfield was closed for a short period in late 1952.
In April, 1965, Paeroa's Mayor Mr Ernie Lee and Town Clerk Mr Ian Parlane inspected an airstrip developed by flying enthusiast Mr Malcolm Campbell on his Paeroa-Tahuna Road property some six miles from Paeroa. It had 2500ft (760m) runway, but for DC3 aircraft to use the airfield a 4000ft (1220m) runway was required. The airstrip was ideal for topdressing aircraft and charter flights using light aircraft. Owing to the ground's peat foundations the field was not suitable for heavier aircraft.
The Paeroa Chamber of Commerce supported the Borough Council in seeking a report from the Civil Aviation Department on the suitability of the airstrip.
The Hauraki Aero and Waikato Aero Clubs' held training sessions at the airstrip while in October, 1965, a flying rally was held, which included aerobatics and scenic flights. Two aircraft on display were the Victor 115 and the Pawnee 135, the only such makes in New Zealand at the time.
A month later there were 250 interested people present at the Campbell airstrip as three aero clubs, Waikato, Hauraki and Tauranga, along with the Waikato Parachute Club took part in a fly-in. Again scenic flights of the adjacent districts were popular.
In October, 1966, a house was placed adjacent to the airstrip, close to the Paeroa -Tahuna Road, to serve as clubrooms and later a small hanger was erected.
With gathering interest in the airfield, enthusiasts came together in December, 1966, to form the Eastern Waikato Aero Club. The inaugural president was Mr J. M. Hill, secretary-treasurer Mr M. Campbell and club captain Mr R. Stockley.
Within three months the new club became very popular with trainee pilots. After six months the club had recorded 99 hours 55 minutes flying time for lessons and was now investigating the possibility of night flying training.
In late August, 1967, a pilot and passenger in a Cessna 172, flying from Paraparaumu to Ardmore lost their way in low cloud over Waikato. When running out of daylight they arrived over Paeroa, landed on the Paeroa race course and they stayed overnight. The next morning the pilot took-off from the race course, flew to the Tahuna Road airstrip, picked up his passenger and carried on to Ardmore.
The first of several annual air displays was held in 1968 when large crowds were treated to a variety of aircraft and flying related activities. There was good support from neighbouring aero clubs and the aviation industry in general.
The Campbells, who owned a Cessna 172, maintained the strip for small planes, until 2005 when they sold the property. The airstrip, not meeting the new owners' farming plans was closed and the Eastern Waikato Aero Club moved to the Piako Field at Matamata.
Mr Phillip Mudford moved into the Awaiti area in 1932 and 10 years later purchased a farm property. Being an aircraft enthusiastic he soon had his son, Colin, and daughter, Lois, interested in flying and they developed an airstrip on their farm.
In January, 1947, Colin travelled regularly from Awaiti to the Mangere Aero Club, to learn to fly. He had to suspend this tuition for over six months owing to farming commitments. On resuming the course, but now under the Waikato Aero Club's instructor, Mr G. A. Robertson, formerly of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Colin flew solo in January, 1948, to become the first post-war pupil of the club to do so.
The following year Colin's sister, Lois, gained her pilot's licence at the Rongotai Aero Club, Wellington, being the first woman of that club to achieve this milestone. She was also the first woman to fly solo in the Hauraki Aero Club, based at Thames.
Father Phillip and son Colin, in mid-1956 purchased a 17-year-old sleek silver, low-wing de Havilland DH94, commonly known as a Minor Moth. The aircraft had a considerable history, being flown by top British test pilots John Cunningham and Geoffrey and Peter de Havilland prior to the Second World War being declared in Europe in 1939. The latter two were on a flying demonstration tour of Europe capital cities when war was declare and they cleverly flew the plane out of Germany and back to Britain.
The Moth Minor was placed in storage for the next two years, then shipped to Australia and in 1942 was delivered to de Havilland company's New Zealand branch. After a brief period with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the plane was returned to the company.
The plane passed through two private owners before the Mudfords became the owners in 1956. The aircraft had a wing span of 36 feet (14m) and these could be fold into 12ft (3.6m) to make for easy storage. Its length was 24 feet, (7.3m) and it could cruise comfortably at a little over 100 mph (160kph) and its fuel consumption about four gallons (18 litres) an hour or 25 miles (40km) to the gallon.
"The Flying" Mudfords soon became the centre of attention for many members of aero clubs around the northern half of the North Island. There were days too when Colin flew the Minor Moth on "sorties" over the Paeroa Golf Course during the annual Returned Services Association's golf tournament.
In 1958 the Mudfords invited interested aviators to a "morning tea fly-in" and it was an outstanding success. By 1961 the annual event attracted some 15 planes and 40 visitors from the surrounding aero clubs and the next year 20 planes arrived at the Awaiti airstrip.
Unusal visitors arrived in December, 1962, when an American couple, Mr and Mrs Balz, landed their twin-engine Beechcraft Donamza at Mudford's airfield on their round-the-world flying trip.
For the sixth "raid" in April, 1964, 26 planes and some 80 visitors from a wide area of the North Island flew in for morning tea.
All good things must come to an end. In March, 1965, Mr and Mrs Phil Mudford and Mr and Mrs Colin Mudford sold their farm property and the airstrip was closed. They sold their Minor Moth, which is understood to be now stored in a farm shed in the Te Puke area.
There were over 30 planes carrying more than 100 people from a wide area of the North Island, on the final fly-in, late March, 1965, to say farewell to the Mudfords and their very popular airstrip.
A New Zealand first was created on the Hauraki Plains in August, 1947, when a Tiger Moth plane was used for aerial topdressing of the Government-owned block of land. The venture was partially successful, with refinements required to the distributing mechanism.
Over the next three years the Department of Agriculture and the Hauraki Aero Club worked closely together to perfect aerial topdressing. There was an impressive demonstration given on Mr Colin Kelly's Puriri property with Mr R. Graham as the pilot of the Tiger Moth aircraft.
In 1950 the Thames Aerial Topdressing Company was launched using the Hauraki Aero Club's planes and there was increasing interest from farmers both on the Hauraki Plains and, especially from the Coromandel Peninsula. The company commenced operations on August 6, 1950, with Mr Fred Sawyer, the club's instructor, by spreading 20 tons (20.3 tonnes) of fertiliser on Mr Hansen's Wharehoe property, between Kopu and Matatoki.
There was considerable interest shown in aerial topdressing of Mr L. J. Shaw's Komata Reefs property, as the Tiger Moth swooped over the 1100ft (340m) high hills, distributing some 580lbs (263kgs) of granulated manure with each load.
The first crash in the district, was also in March, 1950, when Mr Graham had to crash-land his topdressing plane on Mr M. A. Signal's property in the Komata Reefs Valley. Fortunately the plane came to rest in thick blackberry and the pilot suffered very minor injuries and the plane was only slightly damaged.
There was another crash in February, 1962, when a Tiger Moth topdresser, came to grief at a landing strip in Hubbard's Road, again, fortunately the pilot escaped injuries.
Aerial topdressing was gathering pace with most of the hill country farmers changing to this form of manuring their properties.
Mr E. H. J. Fathers turned heads skywards when he engaged a Dakota DC3, operating from the Ardmore Aerodrome, at Papakura, to airdrop 5 tons (5.1 tonnes) of manure at one time on his Komata Reefs Valley property.
Thames Ariel Topdressing Company, or TATCO, updated their topdressing fleet, as it endeavouring to meet the demand of farmers. There was also the odd mishap but as farm airstrips became more "user friendly" and the aircraft more powerful with the development of the turbo-prop Fletcher aircraft the industry was gathering considerable pace throughout New Zealand.
By 1972 TATCO had bases at Pukekohe and throughout Northland. The company merged with Palmerston North company, Fieldair Limited, and in 1977 the 4500 customers purchased the Fieldair Holdings Limited and developed it into a co-operative company.
Model Aeroplane Club
In late 1934 the Paeroa Model Aeroplane Club was formed and weekly meetings were held on the Paeroa Domain. Many of the model planes were made by their owners and powered by primitive very small combustion engines.
There was an inter-club competition with the Te Aroha club early in 1935 and the Paeroa club joined an association with Te Aroha, Morrinsville and Waihi clubs.
However towards the end of 1936, the Paeroa club had only 10 members and it was decided to disband with the funds held 16 shillings and eight pence ($1.68) being handed to the Paeroa St. John Ambulance.
In August, 1948, a Model Aeroplane Club was formed in Paeroa and it affiliated with the Auckland Model-Air Flying League and training was offered to young members. The new club applied to the Paeroa Borough Council for the use of the Domain. The club's second day was held in Mr Colin Kelly's paddock in Quarry Road (now Norwood Road).
Club member N. Oldum successfully tested his model with a 63in (160mm) wing span at the Paeroa race course. Like many other planes of this size the power unit was 1/8hp or smaller engine using kerosene and castor oil as fuel.
An inter-club day with the Tauranga club attracted a large crowd of spectators, who were thrilled by a spectacular display.
In December, 1948, at another field day at the race course, a model plane with a wing span of 48ins (122cm) was flying at 200ft (61m) when it was caught in an updraft of wind and lifted to 5000ft (1530m) with the motor still having some 25 minutes running time left. It was blown towards the Waihi-Whangamata area and was lost. This created an unofficial record for a height reached by a model plane.
During 1949 Mr H. Robinson is reported flying his model at 100 mph (160kph) on a 30ft (9m) cable during a field day at the Domain. There was a visit to the Morrinsville club and also a demonstration given at the Hauraki Agriculture and Pastoral show on the Domain.
In May, 1950, seven clubs from the Auckland Province took part in a control line contest at the Domain.
Over the next two to three years the Paeroa club's activities and membership started to wane and the club went into recess about 1954.