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INSIDE STORY: Ex-pilot Peter Hazelton reminisces about his pioneering uncles Max and Jim

April 16, 2023

Wiki Commons. Photo: Aero Icarus, 1999.

By Peter Holmes

On Friday (April 14, 2023) a private family service to celebrate the life of regional aviation pioneer Max Hazelton was held in Toogong, west of Orange.

Max died on April 9, aged 95. He had suffered a stroke 10 days prior and had not recovered. He was the last surviving sibling among six boys and two girls.

One of the speakers at the service was Peter Hazelton, one of Max's nephews. Peter, 80, started his career working for Max in the pre-Hazelton Airlines days.

They worked together for decades, during which Peter was involved in notable events, including two in 1971: secret missions to fly live sheep to Nadi in Fiji; and the ferrying of Springbok rugby players around Australia during the controversial, violent and historic tour.

Even though Max was Peter's uncle, he was never known as "Uncle Max". Instead, Peter always called him Max or Boss.

The Orange News Examiner interviewed Peter Hazelton on Saturday April 15, 2023. This is a lightly edited record of the conversation.

Peter Hazelton.

Orange News Examiner: What do you recall of Max defying a union ban in 1971 on flying live sheep when Bob Hawke was running the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) - which held immense power at the time?

Peter Hazelton: Oh yeah, I was right in the middle of all that. The government decided it was OK to allow merino sheep to be exported, [but] a lot of merino sheep owners or studs didn't think it was a very good idea, and neither did the unions.

Press clippings from the time. Source: Orange Aero Club.

They were supposed to fly out ... likely with Qantas, to South America [Argentina]. The ACTU told the airlines that if they fly live sheep out of Australia we’re not going to give you the fuel. They all chickened out and said we can't risk not being able to get fuel in Australia.

The sheep owners that were selling them got in touch with Max and said, ‘Well, how can we get over this little problem?’. So Max agreed to fly them out three at a time in a Cessna 310 to Fiji, then the airlines operating out of Fiji that did not operate in Australia would carry them [to South America].

A Cessna 310. Photo: Wiki Commons.

So we flew them out three at a time and landed in Nadi airport, offloaded them. I think we ended up shifting 21 sheep, there might have been a few more.

Were they in a cage or just roaming?

We built a removable cage in the aeroplane so they couldn't jump in with the pilots up the front. We had plastic on the floor and straw, and they had water. They were very quiet. They were very valuable sheep and they'd been reared with humans the whole time. They couldn't care less, they just stood there or lied there, never a problem.

Where did you get the sheep from?

Down into the Riverina, up the other side of Dubbo. They all had air strips. There were only about three properties we’d go to.

We’d leave Cudal before daylight and arrive at these strips half past six, or seven. The sheep would not get out of the aircraft until we got to Nadi. We’d fly out of Casino [in northern NSW] because there was a kerfuffle with customs and the unions if we went to Sydney or Brisbane. If they knew we had live sheep on board they wouldn’t let us depart.

First stop was Noumea - Tontouta Airport. Get some fuel, then on to Nadi. We'd get in a bit before dark. Probably three hours to Tontouta, little more, then another three and a bit to Nadi. Probably six-and-a-half, seven hours flying time.

But we would have already done four hours by the time we left Cudal, got to the station, got the sheep on board and then flown to Casino. It was a fairly good day’s flying. We always flew it with two pilots, not that it was essential.

In case someone was at risk of having a doze?

Oh yeah I guess so. Keep each other awake. I don’t think we ever dozed off.

Bob Hawke did ring Max and say, ‘What’s the story here, you shouldn't be doing this’. Eventually Bob Hawke said, ‘You’re only flying out three at a time, don’t make a big song and dance about it and we won’t try to stop you getting fuel’. I think they made noises that they would, but they never did.

From the National Film and Sound Archive.

Same when we flew the Springbok footballers around when apartheid was in full swing [in 1971]. They said they'd stop us and wouldn't give us fuel. They never did. We flew the Springboks around in defiance of the union.

You were piloting?

Yes I did a bit of flying.

Was there debate within the company about whether you should be involved?

No, I don't remember any debate. Max said, ‘It's a charter, they've got the money to pay it, go for it’.

There was a certain number of threats - ‘We’re going to put bombs on your aircraft’. We did have people guarding the aircraft overnight in Cudal and someone wandering around all night to make sure no one drove into the airport.

Wherever we had aircraft parked overnight we had someone keeping an eye on them, but there was never anything happen.

ACT versus The Springboks, Manuka Oval, Canberra, 1971. National Film and Sound Archive.

There were a few photos in the paper of them walking across the tarmac at Orange. Photographers taking photos of us and the aeroplanes. Even at the football there were protesters yelling and screaming running on the field.

Where was Max’s funeral?

It was at the little church in Toogong, where he was born and reared, so to speak. But it was only family there, about 20 of us.

Did you speak?

I did speak at the church, as did his son Toby … and his grandkids.

The church in Toogong. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Does much happen in Toogong?

[Laughs] You’d drive through it and wouldn’t even know you’d been to Toogong, virtually nothing there these days.

Did Max grow up on land or in town?

On the land. The property is still in the Hazelton family, called The Willows. He started the business on the family farm, so he had an airstrip on the farm, but when it outgrew that he bought a block of land near Cudal, which is 15km the Orange side of Toogong, where the business really got going.

But then Ansett bought us out and they went broke, and the whole thing collapsed (in 2001). We all stopped flying. Luckily our administrator was a different one to the whole rest of Ansett, and he was keen to keep us as a viable operation, which he did. I had about a week off when the dust settled and then we were back to normal flying again.

When the two airlines [Hazelton and Kendell] were rolled into one it became Rex.

Once it all fell over they didn’t want to have anything to do with Cudal, so all that ceased operating. A fellow bought the airport and he sold second hand farm machinery.

Max and [wife] Laurel bought a house in Orange and moved into town and that’s where they lived ever since, from about 2003, 2004, something like that.

Photo: Wiki Commons.

Laurel has been in a nursing home for the last two or three years, and Max ended up there himself, only about six months ago. He died in palliative care at Orange Base Hospital. He’d had a few falls, then he had a stroke about 10 days before he died, so that was it. Almost 96 years old when he died.

How was Max before the stroke?

Oh he was good. Recognised everyone, and talked about the old days. He was driving up until he went into Ascott Gardens nursing home. Once he had the stroke … the doctors said he could last a few days, he could last a few weeks, but the end is imminent. They had him in palliative care.

Max and Laurel.

Jenny Hazelton has been fighting for that palliative care for years.

Jenny is Dr Ken’s wife, and Dr Ken Hazelton is a nephew of Max’s. She was at the funeral yesterday - I said, "It was good Max made it into the palliative care you’ve been fighting so hard for". They're still fighting.

Max was the last surviving sibling?

Yes. There were six boys and two girls, Max was the second youngest.

Your dad John Hazelton - where did he fit in?

He was the eldest of the six boys. He had a half sister older than him.

Was your dad into aviation?

No, he was never a pilot, but when Jim first started a business he set it up on my dad’s farm in Millthorpe. And built a hangar there - it’s still there, and an air strip. Then when they eventually got an airport at Orange Jim moved in there. That hangar is still there.

Jim Hazelton. Photo: Orange City Council.

This is the early 1950s? Was Jim working on his own at that point?

Oh not really, they sort of started together. Max had the Auster and he and Jim were working together in the real early days, then Jim decided to go out on his own.

An Austen Aiglet Trainer. Photo: Wiki Commons.

He went to Rockhampton or somewhere to start with, and then when Max got lost in the mountains, Jim came back to search for the wreckage, but never went back to Queensland. [Max Hazelton crashed the Auster Aiglet in 1954 and emerged in Oberon after six days in the bush - bearded, and covered in scratches and mud.]

[Jim] asked my dad if he could set up on the farm, so he built an airstrip and a hangar. As kids we had aeroplanes and his men coming and going all the time. A workshop there.

Was that ferrying planes?

No, that was all ag work spreading super (fertiliser) and liquid spray. Jim did a few other things, he used to deliver the papers. He'd pick the papers up from the Butler Airlines DC-3 at Bathurst and fly them to Mudgee, Wellington and different places around.

[They’d] take the papers to Mascot, probably, then fly to Bathurst because there was no airport in Orange then.

Jim would go to Bathurst and pick up these bundles of papers to deliver to various little towns. He’d say, ‘Oh well, off we go, gotta go do the paper run’. He didn’t do that for long. I think it ended up being more of a nuisance and an interruption to his super spreading and spraying.

A Butler DC-3 at Mascot Airport. Photo: Powerhouse Museum.

Did you always know Max as “Uncle Max”?

No. I mentioned that at the service yesterday. I always knew him as Max and later on, if you were talking about him, you’d say ‘I’ve got to go and see the boss’ … but if you were talking to him it was ‘Boss’.

Even when you were a young fella he wasn’t Uncle Max?

No. Never was.

Why is that?

When we were kids the married [siblings] were known as uncles, Uncle Bruce and Uncle Bill, but the singles one [including Jim and Max] weren’t.

Dick Smith and Jim Hazelton. Photo: Hazelton Publications.

Actually, Jim’s nickname back then was Chick; I didn’t know his name was Jim until I was about 12 years old. He was the youngest, only a little fella, somehow they called him Chicken and then Chick. He was always known as Chick in the family.

All those boys had nicknames. Max was Sam or Sambo, but it didn’t stick too well. Everyone called him Max.

Were your dad and Max close?

Oh they were. They were all close.

We lived near Millthorpe at Pretty Plains and the rest of them were there at Toogong and anytime we went out there for a visit it was always great fun and great conversations, and we’d be there all day long and they’d be yapping and talking ‘til all hours.

Then we’d get in the car at 11 o’clock at night and head back to Millthorpe. It was a quite a long trip in those days, Toogong to Millthorpe on gravel road. Never any animosity or ill feelings, they used to all get on well together.

Do you remember the first time you thought you wanted to fly?

When I first started flying I only intended to get a commercial licence, do a few years, get some hours up, fly around the countryside then go back to the farm.

When I was growing up all I ever wanted to do was get back on the farm, but once I started flying, well that all went out the window, and I never made it back to the farm at Millthorpe.

What was happening on the farm?
Sheep and cattle, and we grew potatoes, a little bit of wheat, and a little of oats. Real mixed farm. Typical [at that time].

With all these hangars, airstrips and planes around when you were growing up was there an expectation you would learn to fly?

No, there was no pressure from anyone, Jim or Max, to say, ‘Why don’t you give it a crack?’. Being on the farm, seeing them all coming and going, it seemed to be great fun and I decided I’d get my commercial licence.

It was all my decision, but I guess it’s in the blood somewhere. I had no intention of making it a career. I just drifted into it and never drifted out of it again.

Is that what it’s like? Addictive?

It’s a disease, I think.

There has to be something wrong with people who willingly want to spend that much time up in the sky in a metal contraption.

That’s right. Some people would never do it, terrified of flying. It was natural (for me).

What was your first flight?
When I was at school I remember flying to Sydney in the Butler DC-3 from Bathurst. I remember going for a fly with Jim at Pretty Plains in an Auster, wouldn’t know what year that was.

Do you remember the first time you and Max flew together?

I can’t say I do. It was more with Jim because he was on the farm. Once I was employed by Max in January ‘69, then I did some flying with him to get me up to speed on Cessna 310s and 180s. Never flew with him all that much.

People have said to me that Jim just loved to fly, whereas Max was far more business oriented.

Exactly. That’s 100 percent true.

Max Hazelton being interviewed by the ABC. Photo: ABC>

Did Max lose interest in flying over the years because he had other fish to fry?

He was busy running the show, and he had a number of pilots. He used to like to get in and have a fly every now and then, but he certainly wasn't like Jim.

Jim would come back from a ferry flight [collecting a plane] where he’d been away from home for several weeks, just spent the best part of 40 hours flying something from America.

He’d get home and you’d think he’d be glad to have a day off and take it easy, but no, he'd say to Pam and the kids, ‘Let’s go to so-and-so and take a picnic’ and he’d fly the plane to some strip somewhere. He was absolutely addicted to it.

Is there a fear you have to get over when you fly planes - that this could be the last thing you do?

No, it never crosses your mind. It’s just like you getting your car out of the garage to drive into town or drive to Sydney. It’s just the way it is. It’s just what you do. There's never any fear.

You started working for Max in 1969. What were you doing?

[In 1969] he was still basically an agricultural operator. He had 21 Cessna 180s at one stage, all on ag. The Cessna 180 was never designed to be an agricultural aircraft carrying super or liquid spraying. It was just a passenger aircraft, but they ripped the back seats out and put a hopper in there.

When I started with Max he had a Cessna 310, which is a twin engine for pilot plus five passengers, and he put me on that, although I did a little bit of ag with Max.

He had two 310s, then a [Piper] Twin Comanche, then a Piper Navajo Chieftain. The ag eventually faded away and the airline and charter took over.

How close to the ground would you fly doing ag?

If it’s liquid spray about a metre above the ground. Or even less. Super is about treetop height or a bit more.

Does that mean that your concentration levels are at maximum the whole time? There’s not much room for error.

Exactly right. Particularly spraying. You’re going under power lines - if there is one across the paddock it’s safer to fly under it. The wings are going under the branches of trees so you’ve got to keep your wits about you.

Can you only do that for a limited number of hours, concentration-wise?

Well I never did much of it, but they seem to be able to go out and do seven or eight hours. But they're doing a landing every half an hour or so - you're back on the ground, have a walk around, talk to your loader driver, then jump in and away you go again.

A detail from a flyer in the 1970s.

In 1975 Hazelton began passenger flights from Orange to Canberra?

It was charter in the early days, the Cessna 310, like a taxi. I flew the first one we did, which was Orange to Canberra with my grandmother and Max and Laurel on board, probably one or two others. That was in a Navajo Chieftain, nine passengers.

What was the main reason for people flying from Orange to Canberra in 1975?

Some people would catch the flight from there to Melbourne, to save the hassle of going through Sydney. Various people who lived in Orange, but worked in Canberra. We had one - I think he was a university professor - who used to travel all the time with us.

I took a flight from Orange to Melbourne a few months ago and the turbulence was significant. How did you deal with turbulence as a pilot, being bounced all over the place in this small plane?
It doesn’t worry us, just like driving on a rough road I suppose. Who was that with - Link Air?


That’s a Saab. That’s what we were flying with Rex.

How long did you stay with Hazelton slash Rex?

I was there for a total of 36 years. I retired in June ‘05.

How did the relationship between Hazelton and Ansett work?

Hazelton Airlines was eventually a public company and sold all these shares. So there was a bidding war at the time trying to buy out the company and eventually Ansett won the day.

So Max didn’t have 51 percent of the shares?

Now how did that work? He did have 51 percent when it first went public I think, I’m not too sure how that worked. I do remember the bidding war, because Ansett were on the skids, they were almost broke themselves, but they managed to buy the company.

Ansett bought Hazelton in 2001 and went bust the same year.

When eventually Ansett owned us we thought, ‘Oh great, now we've got a massive airline with plenty of money, we’ll be right, now everyone’s got a very secure job'. And next thing they fell over.

I was driving to work that day and had the radio in the car going, and they were saying Ansett had stopped operations, and all the subsidiaries had all ceased operating. I continued onto Orange Airport. We had a terminal full of passengers ready to fly to Sydney but it didn't happen. Everyone turned around and went home.

But after Ansett collapsed the administrator kept you flying?

Yep, after about a week. We still continued as Hazeltons for a quite a while. Then we were merged with Kendell and it became one company, but we kept flying our aircraft and they kept flying their aircraft, and we never flew with any of their crew or flight attendants. Eventually it all got rolled into one and became Rex, and that was the end of it.

That would’ve been a tough day.

It was. It was tough for Max to see it all end like that. There was a bit of animosity there with one or two members on the board that weren’t all that kind to Max when it all folded. But anyway.

Max and Laurel lived on the [Cudal] airport, they built a house there, but eventually … they kicked Max and Laurel out of the house, and that’s when they came and bought a house in Orange.

That was pure spite. There was no-one living in the house. He’d built the thing from scratch - the hangars, the house, the runway - and suddenly he lost control fn everything and they said ‘On your bike, it’s finished’. That was very tough on him.

Max Hazelton. Photo: Rex.

How old are you?

I’ll be 81 in August.

Do you still have a licence to fly?

No, I let it go. I had a half share in a Cessna 182 and we weren’t using it, so I thought I might as well cash it. Had a hangar at Orange Airport and sold that.

It’s a bit of a drama to keep a pilot’s licence once you get to this sort of age. You have to do specialist hearing tests and eye tests, running on treadmills, then flying to keep current. It wasn’t worth the hassle.

How long since you piloted a plane?

Three or four years ago.

Do you miss it?

Oh well, been there, done that. It’d be handy to be able to fly and see the grandkids up at Walgett. We used to go there fairly regularly, but they’ve all left [home]. Just as easy to let someone else fly me these days.

How would you describe Max to someone who never met him?

He was always very friendly to anyone. We’ve just come from coffee with a Hazo group, we have coffee every week and they said it didn’t matter who you were, he treated everyone the same, whether you were a pilot flying the Saab or a brand new employee.

One of the girls there this morning said her husband was amazed. On his first day Max spent a couple of hours with him talking about aviation and general chat, and Max was a fairly busy person. Everyone felt like it was a big family.

Max was very easy to get along with. The whole time I was there, 36 years, he never had a cross word with me, and I never saw him have a cross word with anyone. If he had something to tell you there was no yelling and screaming and carrying on, it was always just, ‘Come into the office for a minute’, and I’d often have a cup of tea and he’d say, ‘Oh why did you do that?’, or whatever, but never any animosity.

He used to love working around the hangar at Cudal. Fiddling around with something. You'd go up on a Sunday morning and he'd be in the workshop fiddling around trying to make a mower start, or fiddling with an aircraft engine.

Was he a natural businessman or did he have to learn it?

He seemed natural. He always had his mind on making a dollar. He had the nickname Scrooge. He wasn’t really like that, but he didn't throw the dollars around willy-nilly too much. He always made a dollar, but Jim was the opposite. He didn't care too much about the money.

Jim would have people come up two or three months after he’d done a job and say, ‘I still haven't got the bill for the super spreading you did’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, how much was it again?’

Max wasn't all that educated himself, he left school at around 14, but he always had good people around him. The pilots were trained - at the end of the day’s work you filled out your worksheet, you gave it to Vic in accounts, and Vic would make sure the bills went out.

Jim was a shocker like that. If Jim got any sort of cash he’d just have a handful of dollars and he’d be stuffing them in his pocket and he’d pull a handkerchief out and there'd be 20 dollars floating around. It didn't worry him.

Max was the opposite - he kept a close eye on things. They used to say he still has his play lunch money - mum would give him five shillings for lunch and he’d keep it and save it. Probably a bit of a stretch. He was brought up in a tough school too, six boys. Reared out there through The Depression. They were taught to treat everything with respect, no waste. Jim didn't seem to catch that bug.

They were like chalk and cheese, and that’s why they didn't get on in business. Max’d say, ‘Jim, why’d you do that?’ or 'Where's the money for so-and-so?’ or ‘Who do we send the bill to for that?’ Jim would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ They eventually split up and went their own way.

Max surrounded himself with smart people he could trust?

Yeah, he was never a one man band. He set up a board, which he wasn't obliged to, as a private company. Probably about six people. My dad was [a member] for a while. They’d have a board meeting every few months at Cudal and they’d get around the table and discuss what the business was doing and what the next move should be.

Max would say, ‘Oh I want to buy a new Chieftain’ or something and the board would say, ‘OK, well let’s thrash this out’. He wasn’t obliged to take any notice of them, but he did. Good accountants and good advisors.

Jim was more of a one man band. He had good people too but he wouldn't take any notice of them. They’d say, ‘That’s not going to work’ or ‘You shouldn't be doing that’. Jim'd say ‘Oh’, and then he’d ignore them and off he’d go.

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