The WoW Factor

The place to go for the world’s best warbird-watching? Warbirds over Wanaka, New Zealand.

FRIDAY, APRIL 9, WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND. The little South Island town seemed charged, as if a thunderstorm were imminent. It was barely 7 a.m., but the traffic was already thickening and the hotel’s restaurant brimmed with customers, some wearing aviation ball caps, harrying the waitresses for their checks: “We gotta go! Can you please hurry up?”

Several miles away, in the display area at the Wanaka airfield, stood the cause of all the hubbub: an assembly of some of the world’s most prized warbirds. A World War I Sopwith Camel. A World War II Supermarine Spitfire. A cold war Lavochkin La-9. British Vampires, Russian Polikarpovs, Chinese Nanchangs, American Kittyhawks…

Today was the opening day of the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow. The show originated with the aviation obsessions of Tim Wallis, a pilot who had made a fortune from a helicopter-based deer hunting operation he started in New Zealand in the 1970s. The money enabled Wallis to fulfill a long-held dream: In 1984, he bought a North American P-51D Mustang. Thus began what would evolve into the Alpine Fighter Collection, a group of vintage warbirds from around the world, almost all of which Wallis has had restored to flying condition.

In 1988 Wallis organized a one-day Warbirds on Parade show in Wanaka, his hometown. He showed off his four aircraft, as well as vintage gems from other collectors. The show was a success, attracting some 14,000 visitors and inspiring Wallis to hold warbird shows every other year at Wanaka ever since.

This year’s show offered about 80 warbirds, including 12 presently in Wallis’ collection. On the opening day, some 20,000 visitors roamed the airfield and took in ground displays and practice flights. The show proper began the next day. Against a vista of snow-dusted mountains, and with music from The Terminator blaring, the show’s celebrity guest, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, opened the program: “Gentlemen! Start your engines.”

First up, roaring low and close to the grandstand: a pair of World War II warriors, a Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bomber and a Vought F4U-1 Corsair fighter. “It has always been a big dream of mine to bring a Corsair and a Kittyhawk to the show,” Wallis explains, “because they are such a big part of the New Zealand air force heritage and the war in the Pacific.” Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots also flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers in the Pacific theater, and conducted maritime reconnaissance missions in Lockheed Hudson bombers and Consolidated and Boeing Catalina flying boats.

Wallis is keen to get the word out about New Zealand’s long history of military air service, which dates back to 1913. (This is a sensitive issue: In 2001 Prime Minister Helen Clark cut the RNZAF’s air combat capability, grounding the service’s 17 McDonnell Douglas A-4K Skyhawk fighters and 17 Aermacchi MB-339CB jet trainers.) At this year’s show, the RNZAF represented itself with a P-3K Orion reconnaissance aircraft, a C-130 Hercules transport, and a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter.

The Wanaka show also paid homage to the earliest days of New Zealand aviation, exhibiting a replica of an aircraft composed of bamboo tubing, fabric-covered wings, pram wheels, and a propeller whose two blades looked like oven trays. The aircraft portrayed had been designed and constructed at the turn of the century by New Zealander Richard Pearse. It embodied many remarkably farsighted concepts: a monoplane design, propeller blades whose pitch could be varied (at least on the ground), wing flaps, an aft-mounted elevator, and a tricycle undercarriage with steerable nosewheel. Pearse had even designed and built his own internal combustion engine. The exhibit informed showgoers that Pearse had first flown the craft on March 31, 1903, in Waitohi on the South Island; he went about 50 yards. Unlike the Wright brothers, though, Pearse did not have his flight photographed. He later opined that the flight had not been sustained and controlled, as the Wrights’ first flights were eight months later.

The show also offered an example of modern New Zealand aviation: a formation of Crescos—cropdusters produced in New Zealand by Pacific Aerospace Corporation in the late 1970s. This particular group was owned by the New Zealand flying company Wanganui Aero Work.

What sets Wanaka apart, though, are more exotic spectacles, such as a simultaneous takeoff of five Russian Yakovlev Yak-52s and five 1960s Nanchang CJ-6s—Chinese-built versions of the Yak-18 trainer.

There was no missing Wallis’ interest in Russian aircraft. He’s made several scouting trips to Russia. On one, in Siberia, he found enough parts of Polikarpov fighters to commission the restoration of three I-53 Chaikas and six I-16 Ishaks to flying condition. The I-16, conceived by Nikolai Polikarpov in the 1930s, is a low-wing monoplane with retractable undercarriage—the first fighter with that soon-to-be-ubiquitous design. The show featured a formation flight of two I-16s and one I-153.

Another Eastern-bloc attraction was the pairing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-31 and a Lithuanian aerobatic pilot, Jurgis Kairys. An engineer and test pilot for the Sukhoi Design Bureau, Kairys pioneered unlimited free-style aerobatic flying. Unlike traditional classes of aerobatic competition, which dictate the directions, axes, and other parameters in which a routine must be flown, the unlimited free-style class has few such rules.

Kairys’ act began with a roar and a burst of smoke; suddenly he was airborne, more like a cannonball than an aircraft. Kairys yanked the Su-31 into a vertical climb, then leveled off, then climbed and leveled, again and again.

Next, Kairys climbed until his aircraft was almost out of sight. He plummeted down into a dizzying corkscrew dive, disappearing into a river valley below the airfield, emerging in full vertical climb and rolling the aircraft all the way up. At the climb’s apex he paused, hanging the Su-31 from its propeller, before finally dropping down to repeat the routine. A lifelong pilot and World War II veteran watching the act shook his head and said: “Jeez! I’m glad I never had to dogfight this fella.”

The afternoon brought another rarity, the world’s only airworthy Lavochkin La-9. Compared with the chubby Policarpovs, the La-9 looked sleek, fast, and powerful. Seeing the two side by side, you could only marvel at how rapidly the design of Russian piston engine aircraft had advanced in just 20 years.

World War II was over by the time the La-9s became operational. They served the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries. North Korean pilots flew them in the Korean War, but they could not compete with the North American F-86s and other jet fighters fielded against them, so many were converted for ground attack, a role they performed more successfully.

Only five La-9s exist today. This specimen had been taken out of service with the Chinese air force in the early 1960s. After 10 years of negotiations, it is now owned by Ray Hanna of the Old Flying Machine Company in Great Britain and Garth Hogan of Pioneer Aero Restorations in Auckland, New Zealand. The owners had the engine and propeller overhauled in the Czech Republic in 2002, while the airframe was shipped to Pioneer Aero Restorations. Luckily, Hogan’s team had most of the parts it needed. “Our main obstacle was that, although we scoured the world to learn as much as we could about the La-9, our best source of documentation was an operation manual written in heavily jargoned Russian,” Hogan recalls. “Often the translations we had done made no sense at all.”

The restoration took two years. Finally, in March 2003, the La-9 flew again, piloted by New Zealand airshow coordinator John Lamont.

It was also Lamont who flew it today, roaring past the grandstand at jet speed. Suddenly he looped away and disappeared from the sky. A silence fell as the crowd tensely scanned the horizon. Finally, the show commentator announced that the La-9 had developed engine trouble and the pilot might need to land at another airfield. In the end, he did land in Wanaka, away from the crowd, and taxied to the hangar. The engine problem was fixed, and the La-9 was pleasing crowds the next day.

On Sunday came yet another Eastern Bloc show-stealer, the graceful Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros jet trainer. The 1960s design flew wingtip to wingtip with three unexpected partners: two de Havilland Vampires—fighters designed in the 1940s—and a Cessna A-37 Dragonfly light strike-fighter, which served in Vietnam.

The show finally erupted into a crescendo finale: nine of the show’s star aircraft simulating an air battle and an attack on the airfield. The gladiators then dispersed, and we were brought down to earth and the reality of a mega-traffic jam caused by 29,000 people all trying to get home.

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