Mon, Apr 3, 2023 6:00 AM

Taking to the skies for 20 years


Tessa Jaine

This coming Easter weekend, the skies over Marlborough will roar and whir with the sound of classic and other aircraft showing off their prowess in one of the world’s great air shows, the Yealand’s Wines sponsored Classic Fighters Omaka event. Now in its twentieth year, the show has become synonymous with Marlborough and a destination event for people around the country. Adrienne Matthews investigates.

Normally a biennial occasion and originally scheduled for 2021 but delayed by Covid, this will be the air show’s twentieth anniversary and a spectacular event that will wow the thousands who attend from around New Zealand and overseas.

It is a vital fundraising opportunity for the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre which showcases a priceless collection of aeroplanes and artefacts from New Zealand and international aviation history.

The Classic Fighters Omaka Airshow is not just a show in the sky, but on the ground too, featuring displays of period vehicles. Photo: Amy Russ

Jane Orphan, CEO of the centre, has been involved since its inception. “In the late 1990s a group of aircraft enthusiasts, including my husband Graham, imported two Chinese Nanchang planes. They had meetings in our house to discuss putting on an air show to raise money to help establish an aviation museum. I couldn’t help but be dragged in,” she laughs. “For the first show we were doing the ticketing from home and it was a bit of a jumble but that event taught us a lot. I became a co-ordinator for the public area and loved the buzz of it all.”

“We were fortunate to lease the land required from local farmer and aviation enthusiast Carlton Corlett and with the help of money raised from the air show, along with contributions from the Marlborough District Council and the New Zealand Government, we were able to build the heritage centre’s first building which was finished in 2005,” she explains.

Up to thirty thousand fans attend the three-day event, held every two years.

The Marlborough Warbirds Association was established and attracted people who weren’t necessarily aircraft owners but engineers, people who wanted to fly and those who just wanted to be part of a project that was a mixture of history and aviation.

Peter Jackson was invited to join the museum group and a collection of his Great War planes formed the basis of the displays which are part of the spectacular dioramas on show constructed by WingNut Films and Weta Workshop.

Managed under the auspices of a charitable trust, the current museum is now a world-class destination for those interested in the history of aviation and human stories of the two World wars, a time of rapid development in the aircraft industry.

While Jane continues to oversee the aviation centre, her husband Graham has passed management of the air show to passionate aviation photographer and enthusiast Gavin Conroy.

Gavin has been to every air show since its inception. “We have a well-established committee with huge experience,” he says. “It is a massive team effort which I love. Serious planning for each show begins eighteen months out and a wish list of around sixty planes we’d like to be involved is made up. It’s then a matter of contacting the owners and seeing what is available. Around forty percent are already based in Blenheim and the rest come from all around New Zealand.”

The show features impressive aerobatic displays.

“Pilots have to be qualified to be able to fly in front of a crowd,” he explains, “with aerobatic pilots requiring a special rating. A flying display committee organises the schedule which starts each day with several World War fighter planes which the crowds love.”

“Three world-class aerobatic teams will be on display this year,” says Gavin, “The Roaring Forties from Auckland, the nine-strong Yak-52 team and the New Zealand Airforce’s Black Falcon formation. The Royal Australian Air Force will be bringing a C-27J Spartan to the show and will be flying displays on the Saturday and Sunday.”

The big difference between the Yealand’s Classic Fighters Omaka Air show and other air shows around the world are the hugely popular ground re-enactments created by people who travel from all around the country with vehicles and memorabilia to show what life was really like during the past in war time.

The event couldn’t take place without the hundreds of volunteers involved. Maria Hinds is in charge of the gate through which thirty thousand people arrive. “I have around thirty people to help me who make sure that everyone arriving has a positive experience from the start,” she says. “We want to get people through as quickly as possible so they can enjoy all the terrific displays and events on offer. I was first exposed to the show when I saw some classic planes doing a flyover. There wasn’t anything much more exciting than that and I have been doing my bit to help out ever since.”

“I start at 5am each day,” she adds. “It’s long days but a huge buzz and the atmosphere is electric. We try to make it that volunteers only work for a few hours at a time and are able to enjoy everything the air show has to offer while they are here. People come back year after year but I can always do with more of them,” she says.

The FG-1DF Corsair is a fabulous aircraft and a hit at previous air shows, performing many low and fast knife-edge passes.

A huge variety of planes grace the skies, among them the ever-popular Spitfire of which eighteen thousand were originally built but of which only forty remain flying in the world today. Mustangs and Yak-3s are regular crowd pleasers along with the numerous selection of other World War 1 and 2 planes. Also included are civilian aircraft such as the Lockheed Electric Junior, the Beech Staggerwing and the aerobatic Pitts Special.

Aside from all the re-enactments of times past with their substantial array of military vehicles, there are classic cars on display and a special line-up of aircraft to view up close including a Mosquito and a P40 Kittyhawk amongst others.

The air show wouldn’t happen without many pilots who give their time to demonstrate the abilities of the wide range of aircraft that grace the skies during show days. Jay McIntyre who learnt to fly at the local aeroclub in 1993 will be showing one of the five Waco biplanes that will be a special feature of this year’s show. It is a rare, custom cabin type of which only three were ever made that Jay and friend Rex Newman purchased and spent fourteen years rebuilding. “It is easy to fly, well balanced on the controls and everything we hoped it might be,” he says.

An integral part of the event is the New Zealand Defence Force. With a career in the Royal New Zealand Airforce of over forty years, Sergeant Peter Barker has had a wealth of experience helping to organise the military’s part in air shows. “This year we will be participating in the air and on land,” he explains. “NH90 and A109 helicopters are coming from Ohakea and the Seasprite from Whenuapai. There will also be flyovers from the P-8A Poseidon and the Black Falcons.”

“We also do a big tent set-up which goes for the whole three days with examples of all our ground trades, including some interactive activities for the public,” he continues,” including an AV type simulator for people to experience.”

Event volunteer Maria Hinds, Airshow director Gavin Conroy, Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre trustee Graham Orphan, Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre CEO Jane Orphan and trustee Jay McIntyre. Photo Matt Brown

“We really enjoy being able to show the public the sort of work we do and the opportunities available for world class training that the New Zealand Defence Force offers.”

Jane Orphan concludes, “This event is a huge drawcard for Marlborough and an exciting way to bring attention to the incredible effort put in by so many people throughout the years to preserve the history of the aviation industry. This twentieth anniversary show is set to be our most spectacular yet.”

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