By Grant Newman
The hard-working management team running the Wings over Wairarapa (WoW) Air Festival cannot seem to get a break. With previous airshows curtailed owing to COVID-19 and Cyclone Gabrielle, this year the team hoped to put the run of misfortune behind it, but a Roaring Forties ‘weather bomb’ put paid to that. Planned for Friday 24 to Sunday 26 November 2023, Friday’s flying programme was reduced and Saturday was cancelled altogether leaving Sunday as the only full display opportunity.
Amid the wind and rain, on Friday the team swung into damage control mode. “We have a good team here and everyone has worked pretty hard,” said show Chairman Ron Mark on Sunday morning before the show. “After the last cancellations, we made some structural changes … Because of that, we’re able to keep going and hold the show despite everything.”
The majority of the public who ventured to a blustery and mud-soaked Hood Aerodrome on the Friday afternoon were still entertained. This year, WoW introduced ‘Take Flight’, its STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) initiative, that saw a range of activities provided for 11-13-year-old secondary school students. A variety of professional organizations were present, including Air New Zealand and the New Zealand International Commercial Pilot Academy. Despite the rain, Take Flight saw more than a hundred children from across the lower North Island of New Zealand take part.
Following the gusting winds and unceasing rain of the previous two days, by mid-afternoon on Sunday, the wind had died down and the sun finally appeared.
“It’s important that we put some kind of display into the air today,” said Mark on Sunday morning following the decision to go ahead. Many aircraft booked could not make the journey to Masterton, and had cancelled, but Mark and the team felt there were sufficient aircraft to enable a flying programme across the better part of the day.
The major commitment from the New Zealand Defence Force contingent was understandably cut back to just the Air Force Heritage Flight, comprising five T-6 Texan IIs and Spitfire IX PV270. P-51D Mustang ZK-TAF, the T-28 Trojan duo, the New Zealand Yak Formation Aerobatic Team were also unable to attend.
Meanwhile, the rest of the aerial performers were sufficient to make up for the cancellations. The vintage and warbird displays included an ‘airshow debut’, a ‘welcome return’, and a ‘final farewell’. Making its New Zealand debut was Achim Engels-built Fokker Eindecker ZK-EIN, which, along with The Vintage Aviator Ltd (TVAL) contingent, was grounded owing to the wind. Despite this, several TVAL aircraft were lined up for public perusal, prompting much pondering among the assembled audience over the intricacies of the unfamiliar pioneering technology present. Several of the aircraft’s engines were started, including the Eindecker’s.
The ‘welcome return’ was the former-Royal New Zealand Air Force FG-1D Corsair ZK-COR, which, under new management, had received maintenance and a return to RNZAF markings by JEM Aviation of Omaka, Blenheim. This weekend was the aircraft’s airshow debut in Mike Jones’ ownership, ably flown by the world’s most recent Corsair rating holding pilot, Frank Parker. There was a fear that the Corsair, awaiting a weather change in the South Island, would not make it across Cook Strait, but mid-morning on Sunday, the Corsair roared over the aerodrome and landed, to the delight of the awaiting crowd.
Parker took the Corsair aloft two times during the display. While many of us were accustomed to the vigor that former display pilot Keith Skilling used to fly this aircraft, Parker, performing his first public display in the type, got to grips with it through a neat presentation of solo aerobatics. Parker also provided the airfield defense element during the mock attack by the Roaring Forties aerobatic display team Harvards masquerading as enemy aircraft. This display was punctuated by ill-timed pyrotechnic bangs and flashes that seemingly went off at random and not in sequence with the approaching aircraft.
The final farewell from the New Zealand airshow display circuit belonged to veteran Spitfire pilot and owner of the two-seat Spitfire TR.IX MH367 ZK-WDQ Doug Brooker, who recently announced his retirement from flying it. “I’m getting too old for this,” said Doug after his display. “I’ll put the aircraft up for sale and someone else can get some joy out of it.” Three vintage de Havilland aircraft, two DH.82a Tiger Moths and a DHC-1 Chipmunk provided an entertaining interlude to the fast-paced warbirds, with the Chipmunk aerobating above the two Tiger Moths as they gracefully flew by. Adding dynamism were two jet warbirds: DH.112 Venom ZK-VNM and former RNZAF BAC Strikemaster NZ6372 ZK-BAC, each of which displayed singly.
It is always difficult to fairly critique an event decimated by weather without sounding unnecessarily cruel and overall, that Mark and his team were able to provide an event at all was a testament to their fortitude. For what it was, the flying aspect was excellently presented, with each aircraft timed to appear in good order. The commentary was expertly provided by veteran Australian commentator Peter ‘Ando’ Anderson, no stranger to New Zealand events, with various guests throughout the afternoon. All in all, the event delighted, simply because of the show beating the ever-present threat of cancellation throughout the entire weekend. By Grant Newman.