Aviator Robert Thurston at Wairarapa Aero Club. PHOTO/SUE TEODORO
Masterton flying legend Robert Thurston knew he wanted to be a pilot from the age of three.
He fulfilled his ambition before the age of 20.
Now, after more than 55 years involvement with Wairarapa Aero Club and services to the flying community, Masterton District Council has recognised him with a Civic Award.
Since learning to fly at Hood Aerodrome at the age of 16, more than 55 years ago, Thurston has contributed extensively to the local aviation community.
He is currently chief flying instructor, instructing microlight students at the club.
He was characteristically modest about the award, presented by Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson at a surprise ceremony.
“It was a complete surprise, and I was a bit embarrassed,” he said.
“It’s nice to be recognised. I don’t think I’ve done anything out of the ordinary.”
Some of Thurston’s earliest memories are watching the top-dressing plane fly overhead as a toddler on the family dairy farm in Kahutara.
“You could see him take off and land and quite often he would fly directly over the house. The pilot used to do a lot of work in the Wellington area and would quite often give me a wave.
“When I was about three years old, I said, ‘that’s what I’m going to do’. I never ever changed my mind.”
Thurston went to school at Kuranui College and found a way to spend time around Hood Aerodrome.
“Being a farm-boy, I had a motorbike,” he said.
“Some days I used to ride the motorbike to school. But there was the odd day if it was nice fine weather, I used to ride straight past school and come up here to the aerodrome.”
After wagging school one day too often to watch the planes, Thurston’s father stepped in.
“I got caught out. When I got caught my father said to me ‘well if you’re that keen, see how much it will cost to take lessons’.”
Things really did take off from there.
“In 1962, at the age of 16 I joined the Wairarapa Aero Club and learnt to fly here.
“I had my private pilot’s licence when I was still at school at Kuranui.”
“Everything has always just been natural for me, so I’ve been lucky really,” he said.
In 1965, Thurston went to a commercial flying school in Wanganui.
Before he graduated, he had scored a job with an aerial top-dressing company in New Plymouth.
He has been formally involved in aviation ever since.
After New Plymouth, he joined a government-sponsored agricultural training programme.
Then moved to Feilding as an agricultural pilot.
“In April 1966, I came back to Masterton, doing spraying and topdressing.”
He flew for several rural companies until retiring a few years ago. He was also chief pilot for airline Wairarapa Airlines for five years.
Thurston has been a member of Wairarapa Aero Club since 1962, recently as an instructor.
He was nominated for the Civic Award by Jacinda Johnston and Nicola Little, who was Wairarapa Aero Club captain from 2016 to 2018.
“Robert Thurston is a flying legend in Wairarapa, having been an agricultural pilot for pretty much as long as anyone can remember,” Little said.
“Over the past four years, he has been passing on his huge flying skills to young and old in the area as the Wairarapa Aero Club’s chief flying instructor with his unshakeable cool, calm presence beside new pilots as they take to the skies for their first lessons.
“One particular group that has benefited greatly from Robert’s support and encouragement are the Air Training Corps cadets. Robert has put in many long days over ATC weekends taking these young people on their first flying experiences,” she said.
Little said the award was an acknowledgement of the significant contribution he had made keeping the Wairarapa Aero Club a place where all are welcome and encouraged to follow their flying passion.
Johnston agreed, saying Thurston had made a major contribution to the club and the flying community in Masterton.
As chief flying instructor, he had made himself available seven days a week for training, monitoring flights, aircraft maintenance, and a range of other tasks.
“Robert has been a quiet champion of local aviation for over 50 years,” she said.
“His efforts have left a lasting impression on many. Robert is to be commended for his dedication and generosity of spirit, particularly in the mentoring and development of young