Page 1: Biography
van Asch, Henry Piet Drury
Aviator, aerial photographer and surveyor
This biography, written by Matthew Wright, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Piet van Asch’s lifelong passion for photography and flying made him one of New Zealand’s foremost aviation pioneers, though in person he was modest about his achievements. He was born Henry Piet Drury van Asch on 4 May 1911 at Waitotara, and brought up on his parents’ Craggy Range sheepfarm near Havelock North. His father, William van Asch, had been born in Manchester, England, and his mother, Mattie Agnes Jameson, in Christchurch; they had married in 1906.
Van Asch developed his interest in photography and flying while at Christ’s College, Christchurch, between 1925 and 1929. Back in Hawke’s Bay in 1931 he took an oblique aerial photograph of the Whakatu freezing works, and another of Iona College near Havelock North. Both sold, pointing to the commercial potential of aerial photography. By December 1934 he had his ‘A’ pilot’s licence and had made a name for himself with oblique aerial photographs, as well as photographs of livestock for farming journals. The following year he declared his intentions to establish a company that would master the then relatively unknown specialty of aerial mapping.
It was a bold move that required vision, innovation and energy. Money was scarce in the wake of the depression, but van Asch’s enthusiasm won the day and he received wide support. New Zealand Aerial Mapping Limited was founded at the end of 1935, and van Asch went to London in search of an aircraft. While there he was made an honorary member of the Royal Aero Club, met the duchess of Bedford (a British aerial pioneer) and danced with the New Zealand aviator Jean Batten.
He had originally thought of buying an autogyro, but was captivated by the delightful low-wing monoplanes being built by the General Aircraft company, and in May 1936 ordered a Monospar ST-25 Universal, which he named Manu Rere. The price was more than he had budgeted, so van Asch raised additional money by working in England for Aerofilms, and by agreeing to be General Aircraft’s New Zealand agent.
He arrived back in New Zealand in early 1937 and began surveying work in April, covering the Richardson range near Queenstown for the DSIR. Accurate maps became a priority during the Second World War and the Royal New Zealand Air Force asked Aerial Mapping to take up the task. RNZAF refuelling facilities, accommodation and airfields proved invaluable to van Asch and his team. In 1943 the Monospar was retired and Aerial Mapping took delivery of a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan, imported by the RNZAF. Never before had a new military aircraft been provided to a civilian company – a sign of the trust the government placed in van Asch. His Monospar was placed in storage, but in 1967, by then the last aircraft of its kind in the world, it was restored to flying condition.
Piet van Asch married Diana Other Wright on 18 December 1940 at St Luke’s Church, Havelock North. They made their home in the village and raised a family of three daughters and a son. In addition to his work with New Zealand Aerial Mapping, van Asch enjoyed playing tennis and golf, and was a keen Rotarian – he joined in 1938 and his membership extended over 50 years. He was a member of the local heritage committee and in 1960 became a director of Hawke’s Bay Newspapers, publisher of the Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune. He was also a long-serving council member of the Outward Bound Trust of New Zealand.
Recognition came from government and professional organisations. In 1949 van Asch was made an honorary member of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors, and four years later he was appointed an MBE. He became a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, was patron of the Hawke’s Bay and East Coast Aero Club, and was made a CBE in 1979. He retired the following year, having logged more than 6,700 commercial flying hours.
Piet van Asch’s first marriage had ended in divorce, and on 12 September 1980 he married Dorothy Freda Kennedy (née Ulmer) at Westminster, London. In retirement he lived quietly in Hastings. He died there on 27 October 1996, survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.