From cropdusting fields with an old Tiger Moth to conducting life-saving aerial firefighting, it’s fair to say the Pay’s Group has just about done it all in 60 years.
Based out of Scone in regional New South Wales, the group is a busy operation these days, split into the four main arms of Pay’s Air Service (firefighting, training and engineering), Pay’s Helicopters, Pay’s Air Charter and Vintage Fighter Restorations. Fifty staff are employed across the business.
But it’s the group’s humble beginnings that make its success a story of both resilience and innovation.
Founded by the late Col Pay in 1959, Pay’s Air Service began as a cropdusting business with a single de Havilland DH.82 Tiger Moth, VH-PCL, purchased from aerial agriculture pioneer Tom Watson.
Initially operating out of Wee Waa in central-west New South Wales where Col had been an instructor, the business added a Cessna 180 and Noorduyn Norseman to its fleet before making a temporary move to Scone for 12 months as demand for cropdusting and fertiliser spreading in the Hunter Valley grew.
That move ended up becoming permanent and set the platform for what would eventually become a multi-pronged operation.
In the late 1970s, Col set up a spraying base near Moree and eventually upgraded to turbine-powered Air Tractors in the 1990s.
His son Ross, who is managing director of the Pay’s Group, said his father showed good foresight in being able to tap into what was a growing agricultural sector.
“Dad always liked trying different things. He was one of the first operators to see the cotton industry starting and set up an aerial spraying business at Wee Waa and expanded that into Moree,” he said.
“When the larger Air Tractors became available, the AT-802s, he saw opportunities for firefighting so he was heavily involved in establishing that part of the business. We had one of the first Air Tractors in the world on contract for firefighting.”
Indeed, aerial firefighting makes up a large part of Pay’s operations, which is home to a UH-1 Huey and an AS350 B2 Squirrel helicopter and four AT-802 and two AT‑802 Fire Boss fixed-wing aircraft with Wipline 10000 amphibious scooping floats, among other types.
“I think it was the nature of the weather in Australia. Obviously, you have floods and rain and as a result, there’s lots of pests that need to be sprayed on crops like cotton and wheat. But then you have long periods of drought with lots of fires,” Pay said.
“With the 802s, the fact it could be used for both applications (spraying and firebombing) was the reason for diversification there.
“The agricultural industry has moved on to growing genetically modified crops and so spraying seemed to be getting less and less and ground spraying seemed to be getting bigger.”
Since branching out into aerial firefighting in the early 1990s, Pay’s has been involved in operations in regional New South Wales, Victoria, Italy, Portugal and Alaska.
It currently has firefighting contracts in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
“The Fire Boss has proven to be a very effective aircraft for firefighting in New South Wales. Since we’ve had the government contract, we’ve opened up a lot more water sources where no-one thought you could scoop from,” Pay said.
“It sees a lot of use and it’s increasing in its use. The speed of the Air Tractors is quite a good capability, especially with the Fire Boss when it’s scooping.”
After dabbling in helicopters with a Bell 47 used for aerial spraying in the late 1980s, Ross established Pay’s Helicopters in 2011 with a fleet boasting several types such as the Bell 206, AS350 and UH-1/Bell 205.
Services provided include aerial spraying, mustering, flight training, lifting, animal control, charters, joy flights, surveying and of course, firefighting.
That led to the establishment of a partnership between Pay’s Helicopters and Idaho-based Timberline Helicopters in 2016, where a refurbished UH-60A Black Hawk has since been used extensively in firebombing operations across regional New South Wales.
Since 2010, the Group has also catered for charter flights under Pay’s Air Charter for both government and corporate clients.
The fleet extends to a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan and a Beechcraft Super Kingair 200 equipped with a pressurised cabin used for VIP transport.
“It was basically more diversification of the business,” Pay said.
“We fly a very nice, late model King Air, which is targeted at the VIP charter market. We saw an opportunity there.”
The Scone district is home to several prestigious horse stud farms and high net worth individuals, making the service a popular choice. Scenic flights, crew transfers and freight delivery to mine sites are also performed by Pay’s.
But while cropdusting, firefighting and charter flights represent the grunt work behind the group, it is the family’s long association with warbirds for which Pay’s is perhaps best known.
In the same year he started Pay’s Air Services, Col Pay purchased an Australian-built World War 2-era P-51D Mustang.
However, the government at the time would not allow him to fly the sleek warbird, forcing Col to sell it. With the money he bought his wife Dianne a new washing machine.
“My father always had a love for World War 2 aircraft,” Ross said.
“But at the end of the day, he was basically told he would never be allowed to fly these aeroplanes in Australia so he thought “I don’t want it if I can’t fly it”.
“He had just got married and started a business, so he sold it. He had to wait another 20 years before he got his next Mustang.”
Over the years, the group has steadily built up its warbird collection, which now boasts an impressive fleet including the company’s original Tiger Moth that was used for cropdusting, Cessna O-1 Bird Dog VH-LQS, North American T-6G Harvard VH‑HAJ, CAC CA-18 Mk21 Mustang VH-AUB and P-40E Kittyhawk VH-KTY. A recently restored Hawker Hurricane Mk XII/IIB, VH-JFW, is also based with the collection for its owner, alongside several other aircraft.
“Maybe it’s a hobby but Dad always did a lot of deals to acquire warbirds along the way. He had the ability to get them at the right price,” Pay recalled.
“He brought 16 T-28s into Australia from Laos, as well as Bird Dogs, Harvards and all number of different aircraft, including A-37s. That helped expand the warbird movement. I guess I grew up with it and gained a love for those aeroplanes as well.
“It was hard not to be infected with the passion Dad had for all things aviation. Being around ag aircraft and warbirds, it doesn’t get much better.”
Despite having restored and flown warbirds for decades, Vintage Fighter Restorations was only created as a separate entity about four years ago, while visitors are able to view the fleet at Pay’s Flying Museum.
“An opportunity came up for me to buy a Spitfire project, so we started on that and started building up a talented workforce. We decided there was an opportunity to make it into a proper business so we started Vintage Fighter Restorations,” Pay said.
“Since that’s been going, we’ve refurbished our Mustang and restored a Hurricane. We’re in the final stages of restoring two Spitfires. We’ve got some more work coming on board as well.”
Having previously owned what was for many years Australia’s only flying Supermarine Spitfire – Mk.VIII VH-HET that now flies at Temora Aviation Museum – Pay’s is now in the process of restoring two ex Royal Air Force Mk IX Spitfires.
Pay was also the driving force behind the Warbirds Over Scone Airshow, due to be held on March 25 (after this feature article was first published in the April issue Australian Aviation – Ed).
The first Warbirds over Scone since 2003, Pay said he was inspired to bring back the airshow after 4,000 spectators turned out for November 2016’s ‘Flight of the Hurricane’ fly-in and air display, which featured the newly-restored Hurricane and a host of other warbirds at Scone.
“A highlight was flying the Hurricane in formation with Dad’s old Spitfire which the Temora Aviation Museum generously sent up with Steve Death,” Ross said.
“So on the back of this success, it was decided to bring back the airshow.”
Warbirds over Scone received extensive support from the Upper Hunter Shire Council, Paul Bennet Airshow and Scone Aero Club.
With a mix of vintage aircraft from private owners, Pay’s own fleet and Temora Aviation Museum, showgoers were to be treated to a trip down memory lane, highlighted by the first time a Hurricane and Focke-Wulf 190 (owned by airline pilot Chris Mayr) had flown together in the southern hemisphere.
“I think it’s the history of what was done by the young people who flew them in combat,” Pay said when asked why people continue to be fascinated by warbirds.
“Also, I don’t believe there is any better sound in aviation than a Merlin engine at full noise.”
As for the future, Pay’s looks set to expand its operations once again.
“We’re constantly looking at different ways to diversify in an ever-changing world. You’ve got to stay with the times,” Ross said.
“The weather is a big factor in agricultural aviation or firefighting, as well as both being seasonal jobs. We have diversified our business by getting more involved with rotary-wing operations, warbird restorations for outside customers, charter ops and now UAVs. We also manufacture on-board gel mixing systems for firefighting aircraft.”
Pay said the business was working with an American company to operate and sell a new fixed-wing drone suitable for military applications, but could not reveal much more at this stage.
With both his sons now working for Pay’s – one as a helicopter pilot and the other as an apprentice working on warbird restorations and learning to fly – Ross Pay believes the group’s future is looking good.
“The family business is going to continue. I think there’s a bright future ahead. You’ve just got to have your eyes open to different opportunities,” he said.
“It’s about embracing new technologies and being able to adapt to new ways of doing things. You need to surround yourself with good people who are on board with continuous improvement and new ideas to keep you at the cutting edge.
“It is a tough industry but there will always be niche markets that you can operate in successfully if you put the hard work in.”
This feature article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.