Gifted pilot Guyon Robertson of Katikati is to be honoured by the British-based Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators for his individual contribution to New Zealand aviation.
Mr Robertson and his wife Elaine flew to London on Tuesday where he will be awarded the Jean Batten Memorial trophy.
The award is in recognition of Mr Robertson's distinguished wartime service with 18 Squadron RNZAF flying P-40 Kittyhawks and F4U Corsair planes.
In 1950 Mr Robertson founded one of the first aerial top-dressing companies in the world. Robertson Air Service grew to become one of New Zealand's largest (and safest) operators in the field. In addition, he introduced the Fletcher FU-24 aircraft to New Zealand, creating the forerunner of Pacific Aerospace Ltd, that builds and sells the P-750 XSTOL aircraft around the world.
The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators was established in 1929 by a small group of commercial pilots and today is responsible for advising the government on air safety and aeronautics. Its Patron is HRH Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh with Grand Master HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York, with 2012 Master Air Marshal Clifford Spink.
Mr Spink wrote to Mr Robertson, advising him he had been selected to receive the Jean Batten Memorial trophy. Mr Robertson said he felt so honoured and appreciated the value of such an award.
" I hope I can do the award justice."
Narrow escapes as a fighter pilot in wartime
Good luck and "someone guiding me", is what 96-year-old Guyon (Guy) Robertson believes helped him survive narrow escapes as a fighter pilot in wartime and when flying aerial top-dressing planes in the 1950s.
Guy Robertson shared his story with Chris Steel before leaving for London earlier this week to receive the Jean Batten Memorial Trophy, in recognition of his war record and as one of the key players in developing the aerial top dressing industry in New Zealand.
Guy Robertson may be hard of hearing, but his memory is as sharp as a tack. He said his interest in planes started when he was growing up in Ashburton.
"We often made planes. I had one fly from the garage to the house with propellers spinning around in the wind.
"Between the wars I was very interested in planes but couldn't afford to do anything about it. I was engrossed in the success of fighter pilots and used to admire them so much."
At the age of 22 Guy trained to be a pilot at Dunedin's Tairei Air Base where he spent two years as an instructor. He volunteered for active service and was trained as a fighter pilot at Marlborough.
In 1943 he was posted to RNZAF No 18 Squadron in the Solomon Islands. His first tour of duty opened his eyes to the casualties of war.
"In the Solomon Islands we had a third of our pilots shot down in 10 days - it was terrible. Every time you went out you thought it was your turn," he said.
The role of the squadron was escorting American bombers.
"If they were attacked our job was to stop them from being shot down, which the New Zealand boys did, to the extent that at one stage, Prime Minister Peter Fraser was in trouble because of our severe casualties. He said no more New Zealand people were going over.
A nation that knew no decency
"The American pilots refused to go out without us, which was a great compliment. We carried on and the Japanese airforce withdrew to the Caroline Islands."
After a year in the Solomon Islands Guy rose in ranks to commander of No 20 Squadron.
In those days New Zealand was under threat by a nation that knew no decency, Guy recalled.
"The Japanese tortured and did terrible things to prisoners. In one instant a pilot was found hanging by his thumbs by wire strung across a track. I still can't forgive them even though there is a different generation now.
"It's hard for decent people to understand what they were like."
Guy said it was probably more dangerous to be shot down and taken prisoner.
"We all carried a revolver and swore we would do ourselves in before being taken prisoners - whether we would have no-one knows."
During his tour Guy was classed an exceptional pilot. He showed me a 1945 logbook from his tour in the Solomons, where his commanding officer had written that as a pilot he was "exceptional" and as an instructor he was "above average."
"Not one to boast, I only knew of one other bloke that was awarded that status and he was killed."
Guy flew various aircraft operationally including Harvard, Kittyhawk, Corsair, Air Speed Oxfords.
Taught 100 boys and a couple of girls
After returning from active service Guy was appointed adjutant (second in command) at Wigram Airbase and was given a permanent commission in the RNZAF. But he wanted to get out and do something on his own. He got an instructor's job at the Waikato Aero Club where he taught 100 boys and a couple of girls to fly.
In 1950 aerial topdressing came on the scene in the Waikato which gave Guy the opportunity of having his own company. He developed the first aerial topdressing business, Robertson Air Service (RAS) in Hamilton. He started with one plane, a Tiger Moth and an airforce associate, John Oldfield, as a shareholder. He said conditions were marginal with no airstrips and a plane that had no brakes and was under-powered, "but that's all we could get".
After three years Guy went to America to test fly a Fletcher aircraft. He brought the first Fletcher topdressing plane into New Zealand in 1953, eventually growing the fleet to 15 Fletcher aircraft, "all bought out of our own pockets".
RAS was one of the more successful firms in the country, employing 63 people with branches at Pukekohe, Te Kuiti, Rotorua and Taumaranui.
Guy said in the early days topdressing was dangerous with 150 young people killed in the first few years. He admits he was lucky to have survived with no airstrips, taking off down the side of mountains, landing on rough surfaces, flying underpowered aircraft with no brakes.
"I was lucky because I had my airforce experience. A lot of the pilots that learnt to fly since the war were waiting for an accident to happen because it was dangerous. Surviving such dangers has been a gift."
After the war New Zealand was very much in debt and all we had was our primary produce, which at that stage 93 per cent of our overseas funds were earnt from, he recalled.
"Farmers were encouraged by giving them incentives to build fences, chop down forests sow grass, without paying tax, to do what the country needed to produce more primary products. That went on until Roger Douglas stopped the subsidies to farmers, so of course they closed their cheque books and that beggered our firm and our industry," he said.
In 1987 Guy sold Robertson Air Service to Super Air .
Since then he has developed and sold properties at Tutukaka, Great Barrier Island, Kerikeri and Katikati.
Guy said he was surprised when Air Marshal Clifford Spink wrote to him with the news of the trophy. While he was not looking forward to the long journey, Guy said he was looking forward to the experience.
Guy is one of many thousands who put their potential to use to serve New Zealand in wartime. The downside for Guy was seeing a mate shot down in flames and killed. He said you had to overlook it - you couldn't give into it.
"I've had so many narrow escapes from sudden death - it's incredible. I do believe there is a guiding force over all of us, I'm sure."