On a flight to retirement

Mossburn pilot Bob Cleland.
Mossburn pilot Bob Cleland.

A Mossburn pilot with an enviable safety record is retiring after more than 40 years in the air and trading his flying helmet for a fishing cap.

Former Airspread South pilot/ owner Bob Cleland has clocked up 31,128 hours during his 40 years with no major incidents - an impressive effort considering he estimates 70 per cent of his flying was done less than 60 metres off the ground.

Mr Cleland began commercial fixed-wing flying in October 1973 and started topdressing in March 1974, first in Gore, then from Mossburn in 1976 for Phoenix Aviation.

In late 1978 he worked for Takahe Helicopters based in Mossburn, carrying out deer recovery. With live deer prices collapsing he returned to topdressing for Central Aviation under Mt Cook Airlines, before flying helicopters at Franz Joseph for three years.

When Mt Cook withdrew from agricultural work he flew for Jim Love, of Central Airspread, from 1987 out of Mossburn.

In 1991 he and wife Elspeth set up Airspread South.

"I always wanted to be a pilot, doing basic training and up to commercial at Southern Districts Aero Club in Gore, funding my flying at weekends by working at Mataura freezing works at $1 an hour, " he said. "I have consistently flown Ag-wagons, a Fatman and variants of Fletchers from 300 to 550 horsepower.

"Days started one and a quarter hours before daylight, home about 6pm and phone work finished by 9.30pm, " he said.

"Major four-yearly overhauls and regular maintenance every 100 hours meant few aircraft issues."

He has seen considerable change in the industry over the years, with noticeable increases in lime going on to hill country, grazing extending in to hill country, and marked improvements in pilots' safety culture, with fewer fatalities.

"The loyalty of clientele and great job satisfaction in seeing properties improve, with sometimes three generations of families on them were highlights, " Mr Cleland said.

The business has been sold to Richard McBride, who trained under Mr Cleland.

Earlier this year, Mr Cleland received an award from the New Zealand Agricultural Aviation Association in "recognition of outstanding services to ag aviation by training and mentoring topdressing pilots", awarded to only one person each year, which highlights the esteem with which he is held in the industry.

"This involves listening and advising young pilots, " he said. "I wrote a pilot's guide for low level agricultural flying in hill country, Level the Odds, which is used nationally and internationally."

Retiring in good health, he plans to spend more time hunting and fishing as well enjoying the company of his three grandchildren.