The history of the Piako Gliding Club, Matamata
That day in December 1956, when a small group of gliding enthusiasts met at Bedford Park, Matamata, became a legend that would be retold many times over the following decades. It was the beginning of the Piako Gliding Club.
Lew Hale, a 24-year old bank employee from Ngarua a few miles north of Matamata, was the instigator. Hale was a model aircraft flyer who had also made some flights with the Auckland Gliding Club and he was smitten with the then novelty of motorless flight. He decided that glider flying should be available closer to home where the conditions for sustained lift in thermals, ridge and wave, were legendary. Hale placed an advertisement in a local newspaper and posted a copy of the advertisement on the notice board at the Piako Aero Club at Matamata’s Waharoa airfield. The result, a few weeks later, was the meeting in Bedford Park. They sat in the shade of the trees on a Sunday afternoon and laid the foundations for one of New Zealand’s aviation success stories.
The minutes of the meeting have been lost over time, perhaps carried away by a super thermal of the Thames Valley kind, or ripped away downwind by a mighty Kaimai easterly wave to later reside on the sea floor somewhere near Tasmania. Who knows? Interviewed recently, Lew Hale was able to recall from memory that about twelve people were present, including Bob Connor, Tony Fowke, Brian Kosoof, Harold Oates, Bill Pipe, Eric Pulman, Clive Walden, Ivan Whitehead, Brian Balme and possibly two others.
It was agreed that a gliding club should be formed, and a plan should be drawn up for financing the purchase of a sailplane. They needed £960 (approximately the price of a house at the time) for a new Schleicher Rhonlerche II from the factory in Poppenhausen, Germany, through local agent Roy Russell. The group didn’t have £960 but that didn’t deter them. They decided to meet again in the new year.
The group, then numbering about twenty, met again on February 18, 1957, formed the Piako Gliding Club and elected the first committee: Bob Connor, chairman; Lew Hale, secretary/treasurer. The committee is believed to have included Eric Pulman, Bill Pipe, Ivan Whitehead, Bill Monteith, Brian Balme and Don Chismon. Bob Connor was a radio technician and a quiet considerate man who would lead the club as chairman, through good times and bad, until his untimely death in 1965. Lew Hale remained on the committee for several years and continued his career in banking and local government until retirement. Bill Pipe was a Morrinsville engineer and remained on the committee until the 1960’s. Don Chismon was a charismatic south Waikato car dealer. Little is now known of the other foundation committee members.
The first committee was mostly young with lots of enthusiasm and a wide range of skills. They made some good decisions, thereby assuring a long, stable future for the club. A gliding club without a glider is not ideal, or one that could be expected to survive long, so the foundation committee tackled the non-existent fleet problem in a business-like way. The bank account at the Bank of New Zealand was as dry as a desert thermal, but they were sure they could find the lift with some lateral thinking. Someone made a £500 loan to the club and ten members provided guarantees of £100 each. The bank then provided the funds for the glider purchase and an order was placed with Roy Russell in August or September 1957.
The club’s first machine, Schleicher Ka-4 Rhonlerche II, Reg. ZK-GBO (c/n 329/57), was assembled at Ardmore on March 3, 1958, and was test flown by Gordon Hookings, a University of Auckland mathematics professor and one of New Zealand’s most experienced glider pilots. However, another authority suggests the date may have been March 7 and the pilot, Ralph Court. ZK-GBO remained at Ardmore until March 23 so that Piako members could gain experience under supervision. During this time, Lew Hale became the club’s first instructor and was joined a month later by Tony Fowke.
The specifications for ZK-GBO (From Sailplane Directory) were: -
Length: 7.3 m (23ft 11in)
Length: 7.3 m (23ft 11in)
Wingspan: 13m (42ft 8in)
Wing area: 16.34 m2 (175.9 sq ft)
Aspect ratio 10.3:1
Empty weight: 107.5 kg (237lbs)
Max take-off weight: 400 kg (882 lbs)
Stall speed: 56 km/h (35 mph/30kn)
Never exceed speed: 170 km/h (106 mph/92 kn)
Max rough air speed 120 km/h (74.6 mph/64.8 kn)
Max aero tow speed: as above
Max aero tow speed: as above
Max winch speed: 90 km/h (55.9 mph/48.6 kn)
G force limits: +4.7 and -2.3 at max speed
Best glide ratio: 17.5 at 78 km/h (48 mph)
Rate of sink: 1.1 m/sec (220 ft/min) at 62 km/h (39 mph)
Wing loading: 24.5 kg/m2 (5.0 lb/sq ft)
With the purchase of de Havilland Tiger Moth ZK-AQA as the tow plane, the club was in business. Harold Oates, who would go on to have a longer continuous association with the club than any other member, became the first tow pilot. He was soon followed by Tony Fowke and Brian Kosoof. Sometime early in 1958 Tony Fowke became the first CFI. Brian Kosoof also became an instructor in 1958. Peter Blakeborough joined in April 1958, started towing in June, became an instructor in February 1960, and CFI later that year.
Other members who joined, or came as members of other clubs, between 1958 and 1962 included Les Marshall, Peter de Renzy, Ross Carmichael, John Cresswell, Tony Littlejohn, Jack Kivell, Norman Lord, Derek Miller, Pat Bashford, Stuart Graham, Bill Sayer, Con Clarkin, Alec Mowat, Keith Litchfield, Ron Dunford, Mike Feeney, Peter Bankart, Mike O’Grady, Iris Allan, Lesley Gibson, C. Mitchell, Stuart Rogerson, Alan Irving, A. Roponi, Joan de Renzy, G. Williams, P. Demler, Jack Bindon, J Williams, R. McIntyre, Ben Berg, John Gattenby, Ralph Fenton, H. Christie, Shirley Morrell, N. Williams, John Mercer, Don Rowlands, Ross Reid, Brian O’Leary, Gary Walker, P. Fuller, G. Russell, A Phillips, Jock Craddock, Dennis Hipperson, P. Martin, B. Marks, Jim Aitcheson, H. Elliffe, A. Shaw, Geoff Nelson, and Brian Thornton. Information, memories and photographs regarding these pilots and others is wanted for a book to mark the 60th anniversary of the club.
Because of its registration, ZK-GBO was known as the Little Stinker and it lived up to its nickname on July 20, 1958, when pilot Bob Connor found himself in a collision with ZK-AQA (Brian Kosoof) while landing. The tow plane had been parked with the engine running in readiness for the next launching. Some rapid throttle and rudder work by Brian saved the Tiger from major damage, but the Little Stinker needed a new wing. This incident proved to be a major set-back for the new club. After only four months of operations, the members faced eight months without their pride and joy. A new wing had to be imported from Germany, but the granting of an import licence seemed to drag on forever. Meanwhile, members kept the revenue flowing with private flights in the otherwise unemployed tow plane Gliding started again on February 21, 1959.
ZK-AQA was built at de Havilland’s Hatfield factory and assembled in New Zealand for the RNZAF in 1940 as NZ863. It was sold to J. Reid in 1947 and the Nelson Aero Club, before being acquired by Piako in 1958. In 1961 it was transferred to the Auckland Gliding Club where it came to a rather spectacular end on January 25, 1965. While taking-off in a cross-wind with Slingsby T-31 ZK-GAD on tow, pilot Len Hill lost control and drifted over the Ardmore Teachers Training College. The glider pilot released and landed on the airfield, but ZK-AQA finished up with its front-end poking through the principal’s ceiling where a meeting was in progress. At the last report it was in storage at Dairy Flat airfield.
ZK-GBO was sold to the Southland Gliding Club on August 14, 1965. At that time, it had flown 1,902 hours and completed 9,300 flights. Over the next several years the Little Stinker was involved in numerous incidents and was once damaged in a flood. The registration was cancelled in 1991. Despite the nickname, the Rhonlerche, or Lerche, was a study little machine with ideal handling characteristics for training. It was often said, that although it had the penetration of a brick between thermals, it could hold its own with the best in smaller thermals.
In this 60th year, the history of the Piako Gliding Club is soon to be published and assistance would be appreciated with photos of people, places, events and aircraft, along with documents, records and stories. If you can help, please contact Peter Blakeborough at email@example.com or call on 021-115-0543.