April 10-12, 1998 - Luggate Airfield, Wanaka
A number of people have asked me what its like to attend the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow. So I have dug out my diary notes and fleshed them out here, along with some of my pictures to describe my experience. My first visit to the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow was in April 1998. I had contemplated attending a few times, but its over 1000km from my home, on the other side of Cooks strait. In January 1998, Graeme Porter, Editor of NZ Aviation News asked me if I was interested in a media pass. I had been doing a little work for Graeme over the previous year. This suddenly focused my interest, and Louise and I decided to go.
We took three weeks off our regular jobs, and spent three weeks travelling around the South Island. We spent the first week travelling to Wanaka. Along the way we visited, Blenheim, Kaikoura, Christchurch, and Tekapo. I also took the opportunity to visit a number of airfields and museums (AirforceWorld, Ferrymead, Ashburton). We arrived in Wanaka from Tekapo on Friday April 10th. This is the 'practice' day. The drive down from Tekapo was fun. We saw the Confederate airforce Twin Beech and several other aircraft pass overhead as we crossed the Lindis pass. Driving past Luggate airfield about 1.00pm, things already appeared crowded. We headed down to the camping ground and got our tent set up. Since we had decided on attending so late, the nearest available bed under a real roof was at Alexandra.
Having organised our temporary home, we headed out to the airfield about 2.45pm. We managed to get parked just after 3.00 and I headed off to find the NZ Fighter Pilots Museum. In the months prior to the show I had been involved in quite a lot of email traffic. I had arranged to meet a few people there - in particular Chris Hinch and Alex Mitchell. Apparently I wasn't the only one running late, so after waiting a while I asked at reception. They told me Chris was around. Louise wanted to check out the vendors stalls, so I had a look at a couple and then wandered back to the NZFPM. This time Chris was there. We chatted for a bit, but he had to get back to his partner. As we were saying goodbye, Alex and Shane turned up. So now I had faces to go with some email names.
Walked down to the aircraft park where I watched the Spitfire doing an engine run. Saw the Corsair and Avenger taxying in from practice. Then I checked out what else was on the line. Having worked my way down to the end of the park, I watched Andover '27' try to enter the park - but it wasn't going to fit, so they backed out. Some of the small biplane owners looked a bit worried during this - those huge propellers generate a fair breeze!
Then a bunch of Yak-52s and Nanchang CJ-6s formed up for a formation practice. One of the I-16s returned, and then the Yak-50 and Su-31 took off. They all looked really great in the late afternoon sun, and of course I worked my way through some film. Louise tracked me down at that point, and we stood and watched Nigel Arnott go through his awesome routine - with lots of smoke!
I was really fascinated by a miniature steam traction engine that was providing rides for kids (and their lucky parents). We walked back up the line taking photos of the static aircraft, but the sun was getting a bit low. I did enjoy watching the A-37 and Mig15 taxying into the refuelling area in the other aircraft park.
It was getting late by this time, so we headed off to organise our evening. Visited the supermarket and then went back to the camp. I'm not big on camping, but things went okay. I couldn't be choosy - I figured this was better than driving for a couple of hours each morning to reach the show. The camp kitchen was well equipped - none of this cooking on a fire stuff. Ate part of our dinner by torchlight when the power went off however. Fortunately it was only a couple of minutes. Our tent was near the camp entrance so we had a lot of traffic noise (vehicular and pedestrian) - particularly when mobile homes started driving out around 5.30am. I thought the showers would be empty, but there was a queue at 5.45. Still we got organised, and then went down to the lake to watch the sunlight spread across the hills. Its really beautiful!
We headed out to the airfield just after 8.00am. Even then the traffic was building, and there were a lot of vehicles on site. We walked down past the agricultural machinery, fire engines, and military vehicle displays. Lots of enthusiasts were in period uniforms. There's more to the Wanaka show than aircraft.
Went looking for Chris, but couldn't locate him. Did meet a bunch of other people - including Graham Orphan at the Classic Wings Downunder tent, and Culum McPherson at the Pacific Wings tent. Its great to be able to put faces to names. I also chatted with Chris Snelson and Ross Ewing of the Catalina Group.
By this time the show was starting. Louise went to set up her video camera, and I walked through the aircraft park. Had a look at some of the static aircraft (like the damaged I-153, and saw some of the background work going on - like one of the I-16s having a spruce up, and the Yak-3 being refueled. Then I watched a few startups before I headed for the media stand. This was one of the advantages of the pass - it was nice to have a bit of height to avoid obstacles in front of the camera.
From our vantage point we could see over into both the aircraft parks, as well as into the entertainment stage, and over the stage to the east. The view to the west was partially obstructed by the goldpass stand - they definitely had the best view!.
The show started with a massed formation of helicopters rising from the riverflat beyond the airfield. The RNZAF put on a good effort - Iroquios, A-4, Andover (in its final public performance, and the Kiwi Blue parachutists. The warbirds were everything I expected. The highlight was definitely the Polikarpov's. The debut was stunning - all five aircraft in formation. The sight was something, but the noise was the real bonus! The warbirds were displayed individually and in period combinations.
I'd seen most of the rest of the aircraft in action, but the show was still good. I'd have to say that the displays weren't as tight as say Duxford, but its still a winner. Although in the main there was only one of each type, the final flypast was still spectacular. The mock battle at the end of each day was a real buzz - especially as those aircraft shot down disappeared into the river valley trailing smoke. Above all, any lack of numbers is easily made up for by the spectacular setting - and in addition you can get up close with the aircraft. For most spectators its only a fence and a couple of metres. One display worth singling out was the Su-31 flown by Nigel Arnott which was once again fantastic. But that's not to say I would have missed any of the others. The other thing that really grabbed me were the pyrotechnics - big bright and loud. In some cases I could feel the heat, and I definitely felt rather than heard those thumps! For me, having a pass and being able to get into the aircraft park was just heaven . . .
Louise and I hung round after the displays ended around 4.00pm. We watched the aircraft being recovered, and then the joyriders starting to taxy out. It was starting to cool down, so we moved over to the NZFPM. Caught up with Chris again, but I missed finding Matthew Beaven at our prearranged time because I'd spent too long with my camera. Watched Chris making his daily entry on the NZFPM website before I checked the action on mine. Then we wandered back to the car - stopping for a bite to eat on the way. The traffic queues were still long so I went down to the fence and ran off a few more frames. We were near the end o the runway, so this was good for arrivals and departures. Eventually we joined the queue, and started our slow drive back to Wanaka.
No excitement during dinner this time. But I did have a chance to chat with a few of our fellow campers. Some were tourists, some were fellow aircraft enthusiasts. But there wasn't much else to engage our attention, and we retired early - about 8.30pm. Seemed like a good idea after our long day. Slept in till 7.30am the following day. Our plan was not to go straight to the airfield, so we didn't rush.
Our first stop was Stuart Lansborough's 'Puzzling World'. We checked out the hologram hall and the tilted house, before watching Stuart demonstrate some of the puzzles. Then we took on the 3-D maze. Being the computer geek I am, I resorted to a left hand search and worked my way round the red, yellow, blue and green towers, and back to the entrance in 40 mins - which is apparently the average time. Louise eventually appeared having found all the corner, but she used an escape route when she couldn't find the way out. We played with some puzzles for a bit, and then had a snack before heading back into Wanaka. It was a market day, and Louise was claiming her 'equal time'. As a result we acquired a rather expensive possum-fur Teddy Bear for Louise's collection. I must admit though, its one of the better uses I've seen for this noxious non-native critter, which is destroying our forests. Shows they are good for something.
We headed back to the show about 12.45pm. No traffic problems at this stage, but we had quite a walk from the carpark. Had another look at the agricultural machinery, and the military vehicle (Warhorses at Wanaka). Some really interesting stuff. Got a picture of two guys posing for another photographer - one of these guys looked stunningly similar to 'Capt Mainwaring' of 'Dad's Army'. Louise wandered off to shop, and bought me an airshow teeshirt. I headed into the aircraft park. Got some closeups of the Oscar, and caught some of the comings and goings - like Mark Hanna taxying in a Polikarpov, and Nigel Arnott preparing for his display.
Then I headed over to the other park. While I was there I had a bit of a chat with pilot B.J. Rhodes. I needed to get some pictures of the A-37 for Kevin Darling. Also photographed Dougal Dallison's newly imported Fouga Magister. Had a bit of excitement when a TV crew turned up - they stood Chuck Yeagher in front of the A-37 for an interview. I'd heard some of the overseas media people complain about not being able to get a decent pic of the General - I had no problem!
I watched Brett Emeny take the Vampire out for its display, and eventually B.J. did the same with the Dragonfly. Louise then claimed equal time and we headed out about 3.30pm to Lake Hawea. The scenery is just stunning. Saw a few aircraft out while we travelled - particularly the Catalina out on Lake Wanaka. We returned at dusk, by which time the traffic had long since cleared. We were exhausted, and crashed out about 9.30pm. By now we were used to the tent, and slept like the proverbial log.
So that was our Easter weekend. We did have one further experience. After packing up on Monday morning we went down to watch the Catalina making lake landings (more on that here). We headed off later in the day for another two weeks of travel around the incredible scenery of the South Island. We came back through Wanaka a week later - I had made arrangements with Ian Brodie to get up close with the AFC aircraft.
Warbirds over Wanaka is an amazing experience as far as airshows go. It may not have huge numbers of aircraft, or the glitzy displays - but the aircraft are as good as anywhere, and the displays are as professional as you will find. The best feature is the setting, which is the most stunning I have seen, or heard of. To top it off, how many warbird oriented shows give you three days to check out all the exhibits. If you get the chance go - but make up your mind early as accomodation is tight, and we did have ice on our tent one night!
© 1999 Phillip Treweek, all rights reserved