By Justin Spence
Each day this week, we’re running one of the winners of EAA’s Pilot Your Own Adventure Contest, supported by Flight Outfitters. This entry placed fifth, out of nearly 200 entries received. While all stories have been edited for grammar and style prior to publication, they were judged as submitted, with no editing of any kind. — Ed.
It all started back in 1947 when off the Auster of England assembly line rolled a shining new Auster J2 Arrow. An aircraft very similar to the Taylorcraft BC-12. It wasn’t known at the time, but this little 65-hp airplane would travel the world and become a family member. In the ’50s, the little J2 was flown from England to Rhodesia in Africa (now Zimbabwe). At some point, the airplane was crashed, and I’m sure to all involved they considered this to be the end of this airplane’s story, but oh how wrong they were.
Along comes Vincent Aloysious Spence known as “Mike” (long story), or to me “Pa” (grandfather). He buys this little airplane that was broken and bruised, and sets out to rebuild it with his longtime friend, who I only ever knew as “Uncle Jerry.” Mike and Jerry get the little J2 back up and flying, but even in the late ’50s the Auster is plagued by the biggest problem of all in aviation — paperwork! At the time the airplane needed a certificate of airworthiness from the Rhodesian authorities. Mike and Jerry got tired of waiting, and on Jerry’s farm they decided it was time to fly. Into the wild blue yonder the Auster returned, and they flew it for several weeks. Shortly after along came the authorities to do the inspection. It turns out the gentle man who does the inspection likes to fish, and one of his best fishing spots happens to be the little lake just outside, you guessed it, Jerry’s farm! After a bit of convincing and apologies, the Auster was graced with paperwork again.
In 1962 a boy was born, Vincent Anthony Spence known as “Ant,” or to me “Dad.” Shortly into my father’s life the family moved to South Africa, and the sad day came for my grandfather to sell the Auster. In 1964 the Auster left the Spence family, and so the two parted ways.
In 1968 my grandfather was full steam ahead in love with aviation as we all would become. He wanted more and had heard of this little organization in the United States called the Experimental Aircraft Association. So, he set off to find 10 of his friends and thus was born the first international EAA chapter, Chapter 322 in South Africa. In later years my grandfather was awarded a lifetime membership by Paul Poberezny, and it was presented to him by Tom Poberezny. My grandfather and father went on to be part of starting, I believe, six chapters in South Africa.
Along rolls 1978, and there is my grandfather sitting in a chair reading some farm trader magazine, probably looking at tractors he didn’t need to buy. There it is, a small little ad, “1947 Auster J2 for sale damaged in accident,” and without a second thought my grandfather is on the phone buying his Auster back. In the truck he and the not so little boy, my dad, go to get the Auster back. For the second time my grandfather and dad this time rebuild the little Auster. This time to stay as ZS-VMV. Even then I don’t think it was realized how much of a family member the Auster would become. It flew around South Africa for years. My aunt did her initial training in it. And it became a staple at all the fly-ins simply known as “Mike Auster.”
In 1989 another Spence boy was born, Matthew (my brother), shortly followed by his better (sorry, Matt), younger brother Justin (me) in 1992. Neither of us were ever forced into aviation, but neither of us ever needed an option. It was in our blood at the time, the Auster was just part of the hangar, and we knew no different. Almost every Saturday was spent at the airport, running around terrorizing all around and, of course, flying in the little Auster. I believe both of us probably had several hundred hours in the Auster before we could even reach the pedals.
We all grew up with that airplane, three generations, all pilots, all licensed mechanics, all part of one airplane, but the story doesn’t end there. In 2010, the Auster was in need of a new re-cover, and like most, it took longer than expected. On Saturday, March 24, 2012, the Auster flew again. I remember the date exactly because on March 28 I immigrated to the United States, and for the first time in my life I would be at an airport without the Auster. A few years later my brother moved to the United States, followed by my dad.
The year is 2016, and we all didn’t miss a beat in aviation. My father operating a Citation X, my brother crop spraying in Florida, and I with an aircraft maintenance company that was named after the one started by my father and grandfather in South Africa. With all new airplanes and projects going on, there was something missing, though. It was time for the Auster to come over to America. I went back to South Africa, and for the first time in years got to see the Auster again. It truly was like seeing family. I disassembled it, and into a container it went. Several months later it arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, and was welcomed to America. Now it sports the N-number registration of N322MV as a tribute to my grandfather and its past. Pa passed away in 2019, and every time I fly the Auster it’s like getting to visit him again.
The Auster is part of the Spence family and will forever be. We fly it as often as we can and often take people flying in it to continue growing aviation as my grandfather did. The fourth generation is here with my nephew. One day I believe another story like this will be written where my brother or I are the grandfather.