Warbirds over Wanaka exceeds expectations
Wanaka Airport, April 2 to 4.
A Japanese fighter was supposed to be the drawcard at the weekend's Warbirds Over Wanaka air show, but a bunch of Australians and a madcap Lithuanian stole the show.
The Japanese A6M3 Mitsubishi Zero was still an impressive sight. Piloted by former United States Marine flyer Colonel Stephen W Barber, it amply demonstrated how this agile and powerful warplane gave the Japanese a dog-fighting edge early in World War 2.
But the show-stopper routines came from four Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornet multi-role jet fighters, which beat up the airfield with a series of mock-attack passes at almost 1000kmh.
Later, a single F/A-18 came back with All Black captain Richie McCaw in the co-pilot's seat. He declared via a radio transmission from the cockpit that he was having a ball.
Still later, the Australians returned for a display in which the 17-metre jets, with a wing span of 12.4m, performed precision aerobatics with as little as two metres between them.
Another crowd-pleaser was Lithuanian pilot Jurgis Kairys, the archetypal magnificent man in his flying machine – in this case the Juka stunt plane he designed himself. Kairys' aerial clowning was breathtaking, and culminated in a corkscrew roll around a low-flying DC3.
In such company, the distinctive sweet-sounding growl of the Mark IX Spitfire's Merlin engine seemed almost a sentimental distraction.
Belonging to the family of New Zealand Battle of Britain ace Alan Deere, and bearing his insignia, the Spitfire would usually have been worth a trip to Wanaka in itself. Here, flown by former RNZAF pilots Wing Commander John Lanham and Squadron Leader Sean Perrett, its relatively low billing served to underline the depth of quality in this year's air show.
The aeroplanes just kept coming, flying almost continuously for two hours in the morning and nearly three in the afternoon. When did we last get to see 11 Harvards in formation? Or seven Yaks?
And where in one place could you find all these, plus flying examples of Tiger Moths, two Kittyhawks, a Corsair, a de Havilland Vampire, an Aero L-39 Albatross, two Mustangs, a Catalina, and more, along with the aerial displays of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and two helicopters dancing a pas-de-deux?
For added novelty value, German wing-walker Peggy Krainz recreated the old barnstorming tradition by climbing on top of a Boeing Stearman, flown by her partner Friedrich Walentin, and then clambering her way out on to the wings.
One of the Australian pilots, Squadron Leader Grant Taylor, told reporters on the ground that Warbirds was "a nice little niche airshow", which is probably accurate in world terms.
However, it is firmly established as New Zealand's premier air show and one that delivers beyond all expectations.