Comment: The Aviation Charitable Trust Fund was set up over 60 years ago to help the families of agricultural aviation pilots and their crew at times of great need, writes Aviation NZ chief executive, John Nicolson.

The agricultural aviation industry has been "looking after its own" for over 60 years, something that was critically important in the days before ACC, but which still remains important today.

This has been helped by the actions of some visionary New Zealand aviators which, over 60 years ago, resulted in the creation of the Aviation Charitable Trust Fund.

In 1956, outside Tasman and Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) and the fixed wing aerial top-dressing industry, there wasn't much commercial aviation in New Zealand.

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The first helicopter in the country wasn't registered until 1957. The industry was considered to "have a lot of promise".

Against this background, the first International Agricultural Aviation Show was held at Milsons Airport in Palmerston North on 9 and 10 November 1956. It aimed to showcase the flexibility and beneficial effects of aviation on the New Zealand economy.

Despite the rain, over 60 aircraft featured at the show, which was attended by 2000 people.

RAF flying ace Douglas Bader was guest of honour. He took up an offer to sit, with his artificial legs, in the loader driver seat of a Rural Aviation Cessna 180 flown by Miles King, and did three loads off the Kebball airstrip as part of the Airshow. It is reported that he was suitably impressed.

Wanganui Aero Work 1955. Type approval given for the Fletcher Fu24, the first aircraft developed for New Zealand. Photo / Te Ara the encyclopaedia of NZ
Wanganui Aero Work 1955. Type approval given for the Fletcher Fu24, the first aircraft developed for New Zealand. Photo / Te Ara the encyclopaedia of NZ

The Minister of Civil Aviation, Tom Shand, at the airshow, spoke about the exciting future of aviation. He was backed up by Palmerston North mayor Mr G Tremaine OBE, who had hoped that the new runway would be finished for the event.

The crowd was treated to many demonstrations including livestock being carried by air, fence posts being dropped safely on hillsides, aircraft being loaded with fertiliser, and aerial top-dressing demos. Importantly, visitors were able to get up to aircraft and look in cockpits.

Some of the airshow profit - 303 pounds 16 shillings and 1 pence ($607.61 in today's terms) was invested in the Aviation Charitable Trust, which was set up on 17 October 1958 to assist dependents of those affected by agricultural aviation accidents.

This was added to as the profits of the airshow were confirmed and following receipt of several donations.

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The Aviation Industry Association (now Aviation NZ), the Director of Civil Aviation (now Civil Aviation Authority) and the Commercial Pilots Association (now defunct) were appointed trustees with Aviation NZ responsible for administrative work.

The Trust was set up for the maintenance, benefit, support and advancement of the dependents of agricultural pilots and their crew engaged for their livelihood in any form of commercial agricultural aviation who, in the course of their employment, may be killed or permanently totally incapacitated from earning a living.

At the discretion of the trustees, funds are made available, generally within 24 hours of a fatal accident occurring. This removes the immediate concern about money from the grieving family.

With the improving safety record in the agricultural aviation sector, the fund is not commonly called on today.

The most recent payment was made in December 2016. This is a far cry from the 1950s when it was set up - between 1 Jan 1957 and 13 November 1959, sixteen ag pilots were killed. The fund last received a deposit in 2017/18.

In an ideal world, the fund is not called upon. But it exists, because of those visionary aviators who all those decades ago saw the need to help the families of agricultural aviation pilots and their crew, at times of great need.