Wide-eyed boy is home

Matamata Chronicle - - News - By NI­COLA STE­WART

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.

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