Wide-eyed boy is home
Aplane comes in to land on Watkins airstrip, is reloaded with fertiliser, and swiftly takes off again.
few hundred metres away, a small boy watches with wide eyes.
After several more landings and take-offs, the plane comes to a stop and the pilot heads off on the back of a tractor.
Appearing from his hiding place, the boy edges onto the strip for a closer look.
With the plane towering over him, he somehow manages to clamber onto the wing, where he catches his first glimpse of the cockpit.
“That was it,” John Spence said.
“I wanted to be a topdressing pilot.”
After that, it was hard to keep the young Spence away, and he would often cut class to spend the day watching planes take off. “I was hooked,” he said. “I would line up to go to school and when the bus pulled up I would hop behind the hedge, change my clothes and shoot through to the nearest airstrip.
“Then when the bus came back I would reappear.”
Watkins airstrip was just a mile up the road from his home in Piarere and he would often see topdressing planes coming and going.
“I would always wonder what it would be like up there,” Mr Spence said.
At 15 and still determined to earn his wings, Mr Spence left Matamata College in 1966 and started saving for his pilot licence.
He picked up a string of jobs, including a freezing worker, crayfish fisherman, venison recovery worker , oil rig worker and aircraft loader driver.
At the same time, he also clocked up hours in the cockpit, earning his pilot licence in 1968, followed by his commercial pilot licence about 1975.
Four years later, Mr Spence fulfilled his boyhood dream when he started his career as a topdressing pilot.
“The thing about aviation is the freedom,” he said.
“It’s like riding on the back of a bird – everyone should fly.”
After a few years flying in New Zealand, Mr Spence emigrated across the Tasman, where he spent 25 years working in agricultural aviation.
His wife Janet worked alongside him, driving the aircraft loader and mixing the fertilisers.
In the off seasons, the couple travelled extensively, including visiting Mr Spence’s younger brother who is an airline pilot in England; and a trip to Alaska and Canada, where Mr Spence flew a floatplane around Vancouver Island.
In December, 2006, they returned to New Zealand permanently, and started their aerial topdressing business, Airfarm Ltd, which is based near Tirau.
Six years on, they have around 80 clients from across the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.
“We only came back to do a little bit, just to keep out of trouble, and it’s just taken off.”
A few months ago, Mr Spence spread fertiliser for Lloyd and Margaret Watkins.
Fifty years since he stood there, wide-eyed on the wing of a plane, Mr Spence flew off the Watkins airstrip.
“I have worked off hundreds of airstrips but, as you can imagine, this was special.
“I had come full circle.”
Full circle: John Spence and Lloyd Watkins on the Watkins airstrip, where John used to watch planes take off 50 years earlier. Wings: Aerial topdressing pilot John Spence has been flying for more than 40 years.