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Wanaka Air Show New Zealand 2012

Sopwith Camel Front end with laminated propellor

Sopwith Camel

Warbirds over Wanaka is one of three major bi-annual classic air shows in New Zealand: the others being the Classic Fighters Air Show at Omaka and Wings over Wairarapa at the Hood Aerodrome near Masterton.  All attract large crowds with international attendees from as far away as Europe and the US. They offer military vehicles as well and all have excellent websites.

The growth in popularity of these air shows coincides with the growth in New Zealand’s capabilities in classic aircraft restoration that attracts international customers. Currently there are six companies in this field listed on the web, but I continue to find more as I search, and a suite of companies providing specialist engineering/repair support services. One small operation specialises in Mosquito aircraft restoration and has built jigs for the wooden airframes.

The New Zealand classic restoration industry started small with back yard enthusiasts and was later boosted by the formation of the Warbirds Association in 1978, the Tim Wallace fighter collection at Wanaka and the Warbirds over Wanaka International Air Show. This growth has the good fortune of being supported by a growing international interest in classic aircraft and their restoration.

The focus of one company, the Vintage Aviator Limited, is the manufacture and restoration of World War I aircraft, engines and propellers. Their aircraft are fully operational and fly in New Zealand Air Shows. At last years’ Classic Fighters Air Show their replicas of an Albatross and 7 Fokker Dr-I Triplanes were flying (6 with Warner Scarab radial engines and 1 with a Continental W670 radial engine). Four of the Fokkers are decorated replicas of Baron von Richthofen fighter wing (known as “The Flying Circus”). The Vintage Aviator website is excellent with many film clips and well worth a visit. One of the clips has a Camel and a Spitfire flying together – the Camel at full speed and the Spitfire just above stall speed. This is a wonderful sight.

Getting There

Judy and I were in New Zealand especially for the three day Wanaka air show; day one is a practice day. We attended the practice day and day two. Our travel arrangements and NZ “out and about” observations are in a previous blog entitled New Zealand – Mountains, Lakes and Friendly People.

Out and About

A word of warning: do not attempt to drive to the Air Show, the traffic delays are a killer. Arrange bus transport with pick-up from your accommodation – the drivers know the back roads. It’s expensive but worth it. During a day at the air show you cover a lot of ground on foot looking at parked aircraft and then there is the emotional excitement/exhaustion from the non-stop sound and sight of wonderful aircraft. At the end the day the opportunity to pile into a bus and be delivered your accommodation’s door is wonderful.

Take sunscreen, a broad brimmed hat and a long sleeved cotton shirt – it’s surprising how hot the sun can be and you are facing into the sun, which at this latitude is low in the sky. If you can afford the extra expense book the Gold Stand which has catering beneath, not to mention the best view. We booked the Silver Stand which was OK but without the catering facility.

The air show had the usual aircraft, Spitfire, Mustang, Harvards and so on which are always exciting, but our desire at this show was to see a number of aircraft not available in Australia –  Avenger, Corsair, Yak3, Sopwith Camel and Fokker DVIII. The show gave us a well balanced, non-stop mixture of all.

Photos in this blog are all thanks to Judy who kept the camera functioning when I was lazily slack-jawed by the performance.

Viewing Parked Planes

We arrived on practice day to the sound of the Corsair cutting up the sky. Looking up while walking proved to be a fraught exercise satisfying neither objective.  We made the choice to ignore the sky and get the stationary viewing over with first.

Sitting in the paddock and surrounding holding areas were representatives of three eras:

World War I – a Sopwith Camel and a Fokker DVIII.

World War II  – two Yak 3s, two P40 Kitthawks (one with the traditional shark’s teeth on the engine cowl), two Mustangs, two Spitfires, the Avenger, Harvards (one with its radial engine exposed), DC3s and a static Hurricane. This group were later re-joined by the Corsair.

Post World War II – a Vampire, a Strikemaster, various helicopters and an Orion (a sub hunter and maritime reconnaissance aircraft).

The Camel and the Fokker were returning from practice as we arrived at the viewing paddock. Their arrival was announced by the typical staccato tak tak tak brrrrrp brrrrrp sound of their rotary engines.  Both had attractive laminated propellers.

While viewing the stationary aircraft we were treated to the wonderful start-ups of Merlin (Mustang, Spitfire) and Allison (Yak 3) engines. But what really stirred the spirit was the sound of the Corsair’s 18 cylinder, 2250 horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial engine coughing into life and screaming down the runway for another practice session.

Rotary and Radial Engines

The main difference between rotary and radial engines is that the cylinders rotate in the rotary engines but are stationary in the radial engines (best viewed at full volume). The unfortunate thing about rotating cylinders is that they transfer a lot of torque onto the airframe generating a gyroscopic effect. This meant the aircraft climbed on a left turn and dived on a right turn.

The gyroscopic effect plus the forward centre of gravity in Camels made them difficult to fly. On takeoff a slight turn to the right resulted in a sudden dive into the ground and in flight mishandling of the aircraft resulted in a dangerous spin. Camels had the unenviable recorded of killing more pilots than the enemy. However, the gyroscopic characteristics made them lethal in dog fights in the hands of skilled pilots.

The second thing about the rotaries is that engine speed is regulated through a complicated switching mechanism in the magneto, which selectively turns cylinders on and off, rather than a throttle. Magneto settings included full, two thirds and one third. Hence the staccato sound, (see YouTube link – best from 1:30 min for sound and commentary on rotary engines).

The third thing about rotaries is that they have a total loss lubricating system based on castor oil.  Pilots and the aircraft copped a lot of oil and the WWI pilot’s scarf served the useful purpose of cleaning goggles.

Flying Program

The 2012 air show celebrated the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 75th anniversary. RNZAF provided examples of a number of their activities during lunch on the show days. The activities included:

  • Troop landing and pickup by Iroquois Helicopters accompanied by much smoke from markers;
  • Air sea rescue involving the Orion and the newly acquired NHIndustries NH90 advanced medium utilitary helicopter (from a boat being towed on a trailer) again with much smoke from markers;
  • Impressive display of the NH90 helicopter’s capabilities;
  • An aerobatic descent of the Kiwi Blue Parachute Team with smoke trailers; and
  • A well executed program by the Red Checkers Aerobatic Team.

The show opened with the fighters in their single displays diving and doing passes along and just above the runway. As with nature’s predators the fighters are sleek and fast – large air screws, sleek bodies and very agile.  Much visual and auditory pleasure was had.

The Yak 3’s showed an impressive turn of speed and I really liked them, but the standout was the Corsair with its enormous airscrew and gull wings – sheer visual pleasure. We could have watched it for hours.

The Avenger is huge for a single engine aircraft but still pleasing on the eye. The sound of its 1900 hp Wright radial didn’t disappoint either. It is a slower, more lumbering aircraft than the fighters which is what you would expect of a torpedo bomber – in fact it is the largest single engine aircraft of WWII. As part of its show it did a mock aborted aircraft carrier landing and it was good to hear the radial thundering down the runway on takeoff once again.


The day had a number of formation aerobatic routines. The Roaring Forties in their Harvards were first up and executed a clean set of routines. This team displays in all of the New Zealand air shows.  Others followed in the RNZAF displays.

On the program we noticed entries promising aerobatic displays by a glider and a Tiger Moth and were a bit sceptical, but were more than pleasantly surprised by what we saw.


The glider pilot’s ability to control the aircraft and get lift at low levels was amazing as was the extent of wing flexing during manoeuvres. The landing was also spectacular as the aircraft came to a perfect stop exactly where a person was waiting to balance the glider on its one wheel. The person did not have to move a jot – just put their hand out.

And the Tiger Moth!  We did not believe it possible to do the things the pilot did with this normally placid aircraft. We sat in rapture at the performance.

The T6C-Texan trainer followed. What a pretty aircraft – I’d like one.  It is a jet pilot trainer and showed its wares across the sky.  Later it was joined by a much earlier radial engine Texan Trainer to fly in formation – the old and the new.

The lunch time program included the glider aerobatics mentioned earlier, an excellent demonstration of model aircraft flying, and a military re-enactment.  One of the Kittyhawks is licensed to have firing guns fitted and it demonstrated firing in front of the Stands. The ammunition was blanks of course, but the sound was excellent.


After lunch the WWI fighters fought a battle. The Camel and Fokker were joined by Bristol F2B fighter. I never thought we would see this sight again and thanks go to the visionaries who developed the skills to rebuild these aircraft. The Bristol and the Fokker were quite sedate, but the camel buzzed around like an excited fly accompanied by the tak tak tak brrrrrp brrrrrp engine sound.


A Pacific Theatre flyover followed and included the Kitthawks, Corsair and the Avenger.  Later we were treated to a European Theatre formation of Spitfires, Mustangs and DC3 Dakotas.

Moving to the jet era now. First came the Vampires which I remember from my days in the Air Cadets in Brisbane. This was the UKs first single-engine jet fighter with its first flight in 1943. It began service in the NZAF in 1951.  The Strikemaster, another British product, was exported to counties in the Middle East and south East Asia. NZAF replaced its Vampires with Strikemasters in 1972.

The Vampire and the Strikemaster performed separately and then together in memorable displays of early jet power.

They were followed by a mind blowing exhibition by the British Hawker Hunter. This aircraft was fast and graceful with swept back wings and sleek body.  Photography was impossible – by the time you heard it coming and raised the camera it was gone. The top speed of this jet is 1100km/hour and it can break the sound barrier in a dive – not bad for an aircraft built in 1954. Unfortunately the runway at Wanaka is too short for the Hunter and it had to come from Queenstown (4 minutes at cruise speed and 2 minutes if it hurried).


We were treated to an exhibition of agricultural aircraft doing their thing with smoke taking the place of insecticide and fertilizer.  A helicopter gave a demonstration of forest fire fighting using a bucket filled from the Clutha River and discharged across the field in front of the stands. One of the crop dusters finished the demonstration by doing crowd pleasing burnouts on the tarmac in front of the stands – spun in circles discharging a lot of smoke.

At the end of the program the airfield came under attack with Harvards playing the villains.  The fighters scrambled and a wonderful dog fight ensued with the Kittyhawk discharging its guns. There were around 10 or twelve aircraft in the air and the pyrotechnic crew was working overtime with explosions etc. One by one the Harvards began to emit smoke and descend below our line of sight into the Clutha River valley. A great time was had by all – pilots, pyrotechicians and crowd.

The closing display was a massed flyover by the fighters – what way to end!  The Spitfire pilot didn’t want to come down (obviously enjoying himself) and we were treated to many minutes of wonderful flying.

Before leaving the show we revisited the parked planes for a fond farewell then off to the bus and our Maui where we relived the day over cooling ale (or two).

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