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December 9, 2019 December 2019 No Comments

The Stephensons and Martinborough airstrip

From 1960 through to 1986 Associated Farmers Aerial Work operated a busy airstrip from Martinborough’s southern boundary. The people behind this company were Claude and Betty Stephenson

Claude was born in Opotiki, a pilot in World War Two he was a Squadron Leader serving in Egypt, India and Italy and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On leaving the service he obtained his Civil Commercial Pilots Licence (no 96). He started his top dressing career in1951 flying a Tiger Moth from Waitangaru near Te Kuiti for James Aviation, for a time becoming James Aviation’s instructor.  

He moved to operating out of Rotorua where he was instrumental in forming the Rotorua Aero Club. It was also at Rotorua where he met  his wife to be, Betty Cruickshank, who worked in the Post Office there. Claude and Betty married at Rotorua. 

At the end of 1953 they moved to Masterton where  a company listed as Air Lift NZ Ltd. had been formed by John Riddiford, Malcolm Forsythe and Claude. The company ran a three month top dressing trial using a DC3 aircraft. When this was disbanded Claude and Malcolm moved to the Knoll at the top of Bidwills Cutting and  resumed using Tiger Moths.

In October 1956 a purpose designed agriculture aircraft, the Auster B.8.Agricola came on the scene . Claude recognised that this was the best plane for top dressing. He set about canvasing farmers for support to purchase  these aircraft and as a result The Associated Farmers  Aerial Works Ltd was formed.

The company set up an airstrip on Smith’s property on the town’s southern boundary.  Claude and Betty moved to a conveniently close house,  the Old Taylor Homestead on the corner of Jellicoe and Esther Streets. Work started on building a large hanger and workshop at the airstrip, this was completed in 1962,  until then the planes were parked under trees on Smith’s property.   Betty was the company ‘Operations Manager’ – office worker, loader driver and general fetch and carry person.

Pilots who flew for the company included Max Lacey, Alan Price, John Bargh, Tony Millian, Dick Paku and Alan Keats. The Aero Engineer was Lou Daymond. 

Claude and Betty were described as ‘quiet unruffled people who got on and did things and made things happen’. A practical example was over the Christmas holidays in 1970 when floods closed the coast road  trapping in holiday makers at Ngawi who were running short of supplies of fresh food. Claude and Betty loaded one of the plane’s hopper with milk, bread etc. and flew to Ngawi where he landed on some open ground and made the delivery. 

Betty served three terms on the Martinborough  Borough Council. She  played a big part in the Centennial Celebrations in 1982 and , along with Norma Chapman and  Charles Michell did wonders in the design work and setting up of the Martinborough Museum. In the early 1970s I worked with Betty  in the Martinborough manual telephone exchange, she was a very practical person in times of crisis. 

In 1889 Claude and Betty retired to Betty’s home town Whitianga. Claude kept  on flying making his last flight in May 1955 when he flew an Agricola from the Thames Maintenance Airport in formation with his son in a similar aircraft to Whitianga.

Mate Higginson 


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