Story: Field, Lawson Lysnar Copland

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Field, Lawson Lysnar Copland

1896–1981

Farmer, aerial-topdressing operator

This biography was written by Janic Geelen and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Lawson Lysnar Copland Field was born on 11 February 1896 at Kaiti, Gisborne, the son of Ida Mary Lysnar and her husband, James Copland Field, a sheepfarmer. At an early age he was captivated by machines, an interest he was to retain throughout his life. His early education at Makauri School, Gisborne, was followed by a year’s secondary schooling at Wellington College in 1911.

By 1917 he was in Auckland, where he took flying lessons at the Walsh brothers’ New Zealand Flying School at Mission Bay. After obtaining his aviator’s licence on 16 March 1918, he sailed to Britain to join the Royal Air Force, but did not see combat. In 1919 Field returned to Gisborne, where he worked as a mechanic for Jack Johnstone. Two years later he took up sheepfarming at Matawai. On 19 April 1922 he married Selina Isobel Wilkie in Auckland; they were to have two daughters and a son (who died in infancy).

Field had to deal with all the problems facing East Coast farmers, in particular the rapid soil erosion of the steeper hill country. By the 1930s he was manager of Makiri station at Waimata, which became one of the most productive hill-country properties in Poverty Bay. He was a member of the Cook County Council and president of the Poverty Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Association (1941–44). He also founded the Gisborne Veterinary Club in 1944 and was its president for many years. He retained his interest in flying and was a keen member and president of the Gisborne Aero Club.

As both a farmer and an aviator, Field was immediately attracted to the concept of aerial topdressing, and predicted that it would change farming forever. In 1949 he suggested converting one of the Gisborne Aero Club’s de Havilland Tiger Moths so that it could work commercially during the week and be available for members to fly at the weekend. The alterations were completed by a local engineering firm, Dominion Tools, which had no previous experience with aircraft. The club’s instructor, Ken Young, was unhappy with the conversion, so Field bought the plane and started the Gisborne Aerial Topdressing Company, the second privately owned aerial-topdressing operation in New Zealand.

In August 1949 the company began work on Waikohu station at Puha. Field helped load the plane while his secretary, Dorothy Hawkins, kept a precise record of its flights using a stopwatch. Later she calculated an operating cost of £2.10s. per ton of fertiliser, and as Field was aware of the financial risks, he charged farmers £5 per ton. Other topdressing pioneers saw him as a leader, and in September 1949 he became the founding president of the New Zealand Aerial Work Operators’ Association (later the Aviation Industry Association of New Zealand).

In 1951 the Gisborne Aerial Topdressing Company was revamped with new and larger de Havilland Beaver aircraft, and renamed Fieldair Limited. Field believed that if he gave his pilots the best aircraft they would treat them with respect, and it was 16 years before the company suffered its first accident. In April 1955 Fieldair introduced the first twin-engined topdressing aircraft, a converted Lockheed Lodestar airliner, flying over 20 miles from Gisborne aerodrome to topdress Mangapoike station, south-west of Waingake. This new style of operation enabled Field to cover much greater distances, doing away with the need to construct an airstrip and all the associated cartage, storage and loading difficulties.

Fieldair developed a number of innovations, such as a tractor-mounted elevator for loading aircraft, which later became standard in the industry, and by the mid 1980s his had become the largest aerial-topdressing company in New Zealand. Although he was not a topdressing pilot himself, Field was an astute businessman and farm manager, who was well known and respected by other aviation pioneers. At the height of his success he owned two sheep stations, Makiri and Arowhana (which had belonged to his mother’s family), and imported a grey Rolls Royce fitted with a custom-designed body. In 1967 he was appointed an OBE for his services to the aviation industry.

Lawson Field died in Gisborne on 29 May 1981, survived by his daughters; his wife, Selina, had died in 1969. One of Fieldair’s Lodestars is on display at Gisborne airport, while proceeds from the sale of the family farms were used to complete the city’s Lawson Field Theatre.