As a clerk at Whanganui Airport in 1974, Maree Middleton would occasionally slip a boiled lolly into her communications with Ross Paterson in the control tower.

Forty-four years ago, the airport had four aircraft fly in every day, and Whanganui-raised Maree worked for the National Airlines Corporation (NAC). Ross, from Dunedin, worked for the Ministry of Transport as a communications officer up in the airport control tower.

Five NAC staff would meet every flight, driving out to the airport from their base in Taupo Quay, and it was Maree's job to send Ross details of the people and freight on each flight.

That information was sucked up into the control tower through a Lamson tube, and sometimes Maree would add an NAC lolly in with the vital data.

The two met up at breaks in the airport cafe — which had "beautiful" home-cooked food — and when one of the staff had a farewell party, Ross gave Maree a lift home. Romance blossomed.

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When he was transferred to Woodbourne/Marlborough Airport, near Blenheim, the two exchanged letters and he cadged flights to Wellington so he could drive up and see her.

When Ross was sent to Wellington to work, Maree transferred there and they were married in 1977.

Ross trained to be an air traffic controller, and his first job was back in Whanganui in 1981, where the Patersons lived for six years and where their second child was born.

Now the couple are back in Whanganui, returning to a rural property near Fordell.

"The airport was very busy in those years," Ross said.

"It was a first diversion for all the air force Strikemasters and Andovers, plus we had the commercial flying school at the aero club under Ivon Warmington, and Wanganui Aerowork was very busy."

After his stint at Whanganui, he worked in Gisborne where he was chief air traffic controller for 17 years, then doing another 17 years in the same job at Rotorua. After her children grew up, Maree went back to airline work for another 15 years.

Ross retired four years ago, and the two considered moving to Tauranga, but the pull of Whanganui got stronger every time Maree visited her sisters Louise and Rochelle, and the friends they had made here.

The Patersons moved to a 1.5-hectare property near Fordell and now have a vegetable garden, orchard, five cattle and two sheep to look after.

And Ross has joined the Wanganui Airport Control Tower Restoration Group.

"I'm doing a lot of reminiscing with them. We are going through all the accumulated information they've got," he said.

After lives in aviation, the Patersons know all the Air Chathams pilots and they are still plane watching — from their house they can see air force trainers and topdressing planes.