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Aviation trailblazer flying high

Rhona Fraser in the Tiger Moth aeroplane she flew in as a passenger last year. PHOTOS/FILE

RHONDA [RHONA] FRASER 15/10/1926 – 16/03/2021

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Rhonda [Rhona] Fraser, a legendary local and trailblazer for women in aviation, died on Tuesday morning at Palliser Lifecare in Greytown.

She was 94 years old.

Her life would be celebrated at a service at Richmond Chapel in Carterton at 2pm on Monday.

In 1959, Fraser had founded the New Zealand Association of Women in Aviation, then known as the ‘New Zealand Airwomen’s Association’.

She was elected its first president the following year.

According to its members’ handbook, the association aimed to foster friendship among women interested in aviation and to encourage them to extend their knowledge and experience.

In 1998, Fraser became patroness of the association, a position that Jean Batten had also held.

Aviation pioneer Rhona Fraser ahead of her maiden flight in 1954, with her Tiger Moth helmet and goggles.

Fraser was the first woman after World War II to gain her private pilot’s licence, taking just four-and-a-half flying hours to pass.

Present pilot licences required a minimum of 50 hours flight time.

In last year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, Fraser was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to women in the aviation industry.

Last month, Fraser had attended Wings Over Wairarapa before it was called off due to a shift in alert levels.

Jennifer Armstrong, Fraser’s carer of about nine years, said that in the days after the festival, Fraser had stopped eating and had slowly faded away.

Armstrong said that Fraser’s adventurous spirit had extended beyond her career in aviation.

In her eighties, she had travelled to Texas and Canada for international rodeo the ‘Calgary Stampede’.

“She wanted to go last year but she couldn’t because of the virus,” Armstrong said.

Fraser also had to postpone a flight in a Tiger Moth aeroplane last year, having been grounded by covid-19.

She finally managed to take the flight as a passenger in December, and said it was “bloody marvellous”.

“She was clear-headed and took it all in,” topdressing pilot Gary Yardley had said of Fraser, the oldest person he had ever taken for a flight.

Asked what had given Fraser the most joy later in life when she was unable to fly, Armstrong said that Fraser had always loved animals, especially her two fox terriers.

“She’s always had dogs – pig-hunting dogs. She’d go pig-hunting and breed them. She had horses too; she’d breed foals and that gave her a lot of joy too.”

Fraser had established a riding school for children on her property in 1974, and the Wellington Area Competitive Trail Riding Club in 1987. That club was still in operation with about 100 members.

“She just loved kids, and loved to have them around her,” Armstrong said.

However, Fraser had never had any children of her own.

“I think she was engaged three times but never quite got there,” Armstrong said.

“They told her, ‘once we’re married you’ve got to give up your work and your flying and stay home’. She said, ‘no, that’s it, I’m not having you’.”

Fraser had many friends and business colleagues and showed her appreciation to anyone who helped her in any way.

“She’d always send the doctor and the chemist boxes of biscuits at Christmas time,” Armstrong said.

For her funeral service, in lieu of flowers, organisers had requested donations to the Wellington Free Ambulance service.

Fraser had been grateful for their assistance after a fall two years ago left her stranded in her driveway for 22 hours.

Although she had not held a driver licence since 2016, Fraser had bought a brand-new Ford Mustang last year just before the lockdown.

“Because I’ve been a horse rider all my life – it appeals to me,” she had said.

Fagan Motors sales consultant Nick McGruddy had said that when he showed her how to use the GPS system, Fraser had said, “It looks like a plane in here.”

She had told Armstrong, “We’ll go down a quiet country road and let me have a drive.”

“Well, we never did that,” Armstrong said. “I think she was serious, but we never got around to it.”

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