How WW2 entrepreneur pilots changed New Zealand farming
Ever since the Wright Brothers made the historic first successful flight at Kitty Hawk pilots have never tired in their efforts to find new and revolutionary uses for aircraft.
At first aircraft were used to set duration, distance and altitude records and that was quickly followed by revenue earning flights for sightseers and thrill seekers. Then along came the Great War of 1914-18, and aircraft became fighting machines. With the peace that followed, labor markets were flooded with returning servicemen including former pilots, many of whom would rather have stayed airborne.
|A James Aviation DH 82A Tiger Moth in a museum|
The entrepreneurs among them quickly found new ways to keep flying. Using crudely designed and built machines they started hiring out their skills as joyriding and charter pilots and eventually as barnstorming flying circus operators. As pilots gained more experience and aircraft designs improved the sky was the limit. Suddenly there were continents to cross, oceans to fly over.
Soon aircraft were being used for scheduled air services, moving urgent and perishable freight, aerial photography and mapping, science and exploration.
In New Zealand a little known event in 1906 paved the way for commercial agricultural aviation to start almost half a century later. The event involved John Chaytor and a hot air balloon. Chaytor spread seed over a swamp at Wairoa. In 1936 Harold McHardy used a de Havilland Gypsy Moth to sow seed on his farm in Hawkes Bay.
In 1939 Alan Pritchard, a pilot with the Public Works Department carried out some experiments by throwing seeds from a Miles Whitney Straight aircraft near Ninety Mile Beach. But then along came World War Two and when peace came again most pilots were suddenly out of work again, this time tens of thousands of them all over the world.
|A Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber on a carrier|
New Zealand pilots made a major contribution to the war effort considering the size of the nation at the time, but only a few were able to stay on in the tiny Royal New Zealand Air Force and the airline business also had limited opportunities. Only a handful of aero clubs employed full-time instructors. Most pilots were obliged to find employment away from flying, but many longed to fly again.
Meanwhile, New Zealand hill country farmers and the government became aware that production could be increased significantly if they could find an efficient and economical way of getting fertilizer onto marginal land that was out of reach of land vehicles. It was known that vast areas of New Zealand were deficient in trace elements such as cobalt, copper and selenium. The solution to this deficiency lay in spreading fertilizer, or topdressing.
Doug Campbell, an agricultural academic had been pressing for the introduction of aerial topdressing since the 1930s and in 1946 he teamed up with Pritchard and they built a sheet metal hopper for the Whitney Straight, ZK-AFH. In July that year they spread fertilizer on a copper-deficient farm of 1,100 acres near Taumarunui in the central North Island. People talked of using war surplus aircraft to spread fertilizer and several tests were carried out by the Air Force using Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers.
|A Tiger Moth being loaded with super-phosphate|
In 1949 a Research and Development Flight was formed in the Air Force commanded by Stan Quill comprising three Avengers and a DC-3 (C-47), and they ordered two Miles Aerovans and 12 Bristol Freighters, all to be equipped with hoppers for spreading fertilizer. It was even proposed that four-engine Handley Page Hastings transports could be used.
In 1947 New Zealand’s airlines had been nationalized by the left-leaning Labour Government of Peter Fraser and in 1949 the indications were that the government wanted a monopoly on the coming aerial topdressing industry too.
There were stumbling blocks to progress for the private entrepreneurs. At that time it was illegal to drop anything from an aircraft and the government bureaucracy was taking too long for the men impatient to fly again. Changes to the regulations and a licensing system for operators could be years away, and may have possibly been put on hold forever.
|A British Auster Agricola designed for|
New Zealand conditions attracted few buyers
The entrepreneurs were not prepared to wait any longer and took the proverbial bull by the horns. They had a simple uncomplicated approach to the business and purchased war-surplus de Havilland DH 82A Tiger Moth trainers, removed the front seat and installed a hopper in its place. With the Tiger Moths they could load the fertilizer from bags directly into the hopper and fly from the farm of any farmer willing to pay for the service. The Tiger Moths were available at £100 each.
In 1949 at least five private operators purchased Tiger Moths from the Air Force, which by this time was going cold on the idea of aerial topdressing, and instead wanted to deal with the rising threat of communism. The operators included Airwork, Christchurch (five Tiger Moths); James Aviation, Hamilton (three); Aircraft Services, Auckland (three); Gisborne Aerial Topdressing (one); and Southern Scenic Air Services had converted one Auster for topdressing.
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Other early operators included Rex Garnham of Rangitikei Air Services (who was later granted the first operator license) and Wally Harding a farmer who launched Wanganui Aero Work with a Tiger Moth. John Barr, founder of Barr Brothers, had the misfortune to be the first topdresser to have an accident when he crashed on his first flight and spent some time in hospital. Other early birds included Miles King (Rural Aviation) and Guy Robertson (Robertson Air Services),
Although within five years more than fifty companies had been formed to provide farmers with aerial topdressing services, the early pioneers mentioned above became the ones to dominate the industry for the next several decades. Mergers and take-overs enabled them to grow, while for others competition and accidents reduced their numbers. Arthur Esmond Gibson, the Director of Civil Aviation at the time, was the pilot’s and operator’s friend and did much to legalize aerial work operations with regard to dropping material from the air, low flying, landing places and overloading.
Most operators kept their aircraft busy for most of the year with weed control, rabbit poisoning and supply dropping operations outside the short topdressing season.
The pilots were glad to get back in the air again and they were soon joined by younger aero club trained pilots with little experience. But with relaxed flying rules, little specialized training, under-powered aircraft and low flying over difficult terrain, the accident rate was high and the first fatal accident occurred in 1950 when an overloaded and under-powered Cessna 170 crashed on take-off from a farm airstrip. Others soon followed.
|A New Zealand built Fletcher FU-24|
It was a special breed of pilot that went into New Zealand’s aerial topdressing industry. Many were hard-working, hard-drinking, yarn-spinning dare-devils in the early days. The survival rate was barely better than the war-time flying that many had already survived.
For the first several years the Tiger Moth was the backbone of the industry, not because they were suitable for the job, but simply because at first there was an endless supply of them at budget prices. In reality, the Tiger Moth was probably the most unsuitable aircraft for the job. It was a development of the 1920s de Havilland DH 60 Gypsy Moth. The first DH 82 Tiger Moth took to the air in 1931, an open cockpit biplane trainer. Initially, there were no drawings for the Tiger Moth. De Havillands simply pulled a DH 60 apart and shortened some parts and lengthened others to give easier access to the front cockpit. They also inverted the engine to improve ground clearance for the propeller. Then they re-assembled it and flew it. The Tiger Moth was said to be delivered new with a built-in head wind. It was flimsy, clumsy and top-heavy, but many pilots like them, either because they lacked experience of anything better, or they loved the challenge of taming a Tiger.
As the supply of Tiger Moths dried up, mostly due to accidents, operators were forced to look for suitable replacements. The main contenders were British Austers, American Cessnas and Pipers, and Canadian Beavers, but these too, although better than the Tiger Moths, were barely an improvement. They were still converted trainers or touring aircraft. The industry needed a purpose-built aircraft.
From the middle 1950s new types emerged, purpose-built for New Zealand conditions, and they came from Australia, USA and England. Many types were tried with limited success and some were total failures. However, one type emerged that would dominate the industry for decades to come and that was the California designed Fletcher FU-24, a design based on the FD-25 Defender from 1951. The first one arrived in New Zealand in 1954 and a Hamilton company, Air Parts Limited, secured a license to build them in New Zealand. The first one had a large open cockpit, a 225 hip. flat six engine, a wide and sturdy tricycle undercarriage, and thick high-lift wings. The Fletcher could carry twice the load of a Tiger Moth and had excellent slow flight characteristics.
After the first 257 Fletchers had been built with 260 and 310 hp Continental engines the type was upgraded as the FU-24-950 with a 400 hp. Lycoming flat eight engine. Further development in the 1970s saw turbine power units being installed and later still the type was redeveloped again as the Pacific Aero Space Cresco. Fletchers and Crescos have been exported from New Zealand to many parts of the world where they operate as topdressers and sprayers, and are used in skydiving operations and charter work.
During the period from 1955 to 1985 a number of companies operated large twin-engine aircraft on topdressing operations of which the most successful was the faithful old 1934 designed Douglas DC-3 (C-47). With five tons of fertilizer and operating mostly from regular airports, the DC-3s could cost-effectively spread their load on some of New Zealand’s largest farms. These aircraft were all modified enabling operation by a single pilot.
By 1958 the New Zealand agricultural aviation industry had grown to 73 companies and 279 aircraft operating from more than 10,000 farm airstrips.
The airstrips were almost exclusively in hilly or mountainous terrain. They were short, narrow and usually steep, with take-offs always downhill and lands always uphill. Most strips could only be used in near calm conditions, the approaches and climb out paths were often crowded by lethal obstructions including hills, trees, buildings or electricity lines. With almost all airstrips a go-around was impossible. It was first time correct, or die, and that wasn’t a once a day event. Typically, a pilot would be in the air for only three minutes at a time with only 45 seconds on the ground for loading and a hundred take-offs and landings constituted a fairly normal day.
As larger aircraft became available the fleet size began to shrink while the tonnage spread continued to increase until a farming recession in the 1980s caused the industry to shrink. Environmental concerns have also affected the number of operators and tonnages during recent times.
But the exploits of the early pilots, the Supermen, who spread the super-phosphate on the hillsides Downunder, are legendary. One pilot called his company one day to report that “my engine is missing.” When told to check the spark plugs, he replied, “No no. I mean I can’t find the engine!” Indeed the engine was missing. It had parted company with the aircraft when one blade of the propeller flew off. The aircraft, a Cessna 180, did three quick loops due to the catastrophic change of trim. At the top of each loop the pilot cranked down another notch of flap and the last loop ended with a perfect three-point landing at almost zero airspeed. Another engine and propeller were installed the next day and pilot and Cessna went back to work again.
Another pilot wrote in an accident report: “I was coming in to land when the sun got in my eyes, but that wasn’t a problem because it was my seventh landing of the day and I knew exactly where the strip was. Unfortunately, as I peered into the sun I didn’t see the cow that had wandered onto the strip, but I managed to avoid it at the last moment by swerving across a ditch. After that I opened the throttle to go around again, but the propeller dug itself into a bank as the ditch ripped off the undercarriage which in turn caused the aircraft to slide into a tree where the starboard wing was ripped off. As I steered the aircraft back toward the strip, the port wing struck a tree stump which was hiding in the long grass, the stump ripped the underside out of the fuselage and then I lost control.”
Aerial topdressing company, Fieldair, had a strangled goose as its logo. The legend was that a pilot flying between jobs saw a goose going the same way. So he closed the gap until they were flying in close formation. He felt like some goose for dinner. When the goose was a little over an arm’s length away from the Tiger Moth cockpit, the pilot cunningly initiated a gentle sideslip towards the feathered flyer. But the goose saw him coming and moved away. By this time the pilot was feeling quite hungry for some cooked goose and went all out to cook the goose’s goose, so to speak. A dog-fight started and the two flyers got lower and lower. For a moment the pilot lost sight of the goose until he was suddenly alarmed to see that the goose had gone on the offensive and was on a collision course with the propeller. Well, the propeller flew to bits and the pilot put down on the only even ground in sight and pulled the broken goose out of the flying wires. When the pilot reported to the company that he had suffered a bird-strike there was an element of truth in it. But his story was undone when the farmer called Fieldair and asked them to spread some fertilizer for him. He explained, “Your company has the world’s best pilots. One of them just chased a goose all over my farm, narrowly missing every tree and hill on the property until he cut the goose in half with the propeller and then landed to pick it up.”