Obituary: Cambridge salutes a respected aviator

Aubrey Bills as a young man in the RAF.

Aubrey Bills’ farewell at Cambridge Raceway was spliced with stories of a proud, accomplished man, one not blessed with great patience, but gifted with intense loyalty and a mischievous sense of fun.

Aubrey died in Cambridge on December 9, aged 99.  He had his 100th in his sights, partly for the message he hoped would come from Queen Elizabeth, but more for the celebratory flight he imagined would see him at the controls of a P-51B Mustang.

Those at his January 16 farewell heard his son-in-law, Barry Lennox – with whom he shared 54 years of comfortable comradeship as Air Force officers – declare that dream unworkable. The aircraft would likely be unserviceable, he said, and in any case, there was some doubt around Barry handing the single-control Mustang to Aubrey.

Barry’s predictions around the birthday that never came was one of many stories told by Aubrey’s family, friends, neighbours and former colleagues. The event was emceed by Don Fraser with the eulogy delivered by his wife Gay Fraser.

Born in Dunedin on November 25, 1921, Aubrey was schooled in a region that fostered his lifelong love of horses and saw him divert from his tuition in business management and administration into farm training at Flock House.  When WW2 broke out in 1939, Aubrey tried to enter pilot training with the RNZAF, but found he needed additional educational qualifications to make the cut. He attended night classes to resolve the issue, working at the same time as a storeman at Cadbury Fry Hudsons Chocolate Factory and then Woolworths NZ. As a result of the latter, Woolworths supplied him with a food package throughout the war.

By 1941 he was eligible to join the Air Force. His training took him to Ohakea, Taiere, Wigram and then Woodburn air bases. He gained his wings at Woodburn, but a glitch involving an attempt with two other pilots to fly an inverted formation over Picton at 1500 ft resulted in the derating of their commissions, despite all three being in the top five in both flying and educational requirements.
Aubrey went on to train as a flying instructor at Tauranga Air Base, and later returned to Taiere where his commission was granted. After a spell at Ardmore, and by now married to Lynda, Aubrey was posted to the Solomon Islands.  He completed three tours before returning to Ohakea.

By the end of the war his medals count included the 1939-45 Star, The Pacific Star, The War Medal 1939-45, The New Zealand War Service Medal, and The New Zealand Defence Service Medal with the Territorial and Regular clasps.

Aubrey and Win Bills enjoying one of their early racehorse successes.

After the war Aubrey returned to retail management in Dunedin and became a member of the Otago Territorial Air Force, flying most weekends. He rejoined the RNZAF as a flying instructor and was posted to the Territorial Force as an executive officer in charge of operational maintenance and flying activities. He remained in that position until 1953 when on a search and rescue flying assignment for missing trampers in Mt Aspiring he crashed his aircraft, resulting in his co-pilot’s death and injuries to himself that ended his flying career.  His heroic efforts to rescue his co-pilot led to him being awarded the Queens Commendation for Brave Conduct in June 1953 – it was a medal Aubrey never claimed.

He remained in the commercial world, spending 30 years with Dulux and after marrying Win in 1981, helped build their packaging business into a success.  When they retired, the pair became well-respected breeders of horses.

Always a keen sportsman, Aubrey was in the top five rugby referees in Otago, and went on to represent the provinces in tennis, rugby, golf and lawn bowls. His eldest daughter Dianne Lennox described Aubrey as a challenging man, one who was outgoing, who loved whiskey and cars, and a deeply respected pilot.

Aubrey is survived by his wife Win, three of his children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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