When we arrived here in New Zealand we had a fairly clear idea of what we were likely to see: some fantastic scenery, numerous rare and exotic birds, loads of vineyards, a few volcanoes, lots of sheep and cattle, a couple of glaciers, maybe even the odd Hobbit or two. What we never anticipated, and could never have imagined, was a world class aviation museum.
The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is the brainchild of local aviation enthusiasts, who set up the New Zealand Aviation Museum Trust in the late 1990s. But it was the involvement of fellow aviation aficionado Sir Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings movies, that moved the project to a different level.
Jackson has a particular interest in aircraft from World War 1, and his success in the movie business has enabled him to indulge his passion by purchasing a number original and replica planes from that period. In 2005 he agreed to display his private collection of Great War aircraft and artefacts at the Heritage Centre.
Just as important as the exhibits was the expertise that Jackson was able to bring to the project. The Centre’s philosophy was to avoid creating “a warehouse of relics,” and instead to use the machinery, artefacts and other devices to tell stories. Jackson’s connections in the movie industry enabled him to track down and employ experts who could create the dioramas and vignettes that would bring the stories to life.
Sir Peter Jackson’s private collection is displayed in the Knights of the Sky Great War exhibition, which occupies one hangar at the Centre. One of the most striking exhibits (below) is the Etrich Taube (Igor Etrich was the designer; taube is the German for dove).
By the standards of the day the Etrich Taube was an old plane, having first flown in 1910. It was used by the German military as an aerial observation post for monitoring enemy troop movements. It was ill-equipped for combat, and the diorama shows the observer taking a pot shot at an approaching British plane, while sitting behind him the pilot manoeuvres his aircraft.
The Curtiss MF Flying (above) was designed by American Glenn H. Curtiss, who is remembered for perfecting the seaplane. The model on display was built in Philadephia; it probably didn’t see active service, but was instead used as a training aircraft.
Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is the diorama illustrating the aftermath of the shooting down of the Red Baron’s iconic Fokker triplane. As a boy I can remember being thrilled by the stories of Baron von Richthofen’s skill and bravery. What I had not known, until we visited the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, was that there was a feeding frenzy of trophy hunters following the downing of the plane.
A second hangar houses the Dangerous Skies exhibition of World War 2 aircraft. These planes belong to the Trust rather than to Sir Peter Jackson, but the movie director’s influence is evident in the way they are displayed as well the lighting of the exhibits, which is superb.
Like most boys of my age growing up in the UK in the late 1950s / early 1960s, I was fascinated by World War 2. My father had fought in the conflict and told me the story of “his” war. He also encouraged an interest in World War 2 aircraft, and helped me make and paint Airfix models which “flew” suspended from a couple of strings strung across my bedroom ceiling.
One of my favourites was the German stuka (above), a dive bomber with an unmistakable wing-shape. It terrorised the Allies in the early years of the war, but was ultimately too sluggish to survive the attention of swifter and more manoeuvrable fighter planes.
And amongst the Allied fighter planes none was more iconic than the Spitfire (below). The aircraft on display is a late model, an upgrade on the one that fought in the Battle of Britain, and which “flew” – in kit form – suspended from my bedroom ceiling.
Nowhere is the commitment to telling a story better displayed than in the diorama featuring a Lockheed Hudson, an American-built light bomber and coastal reconnaissance aircraft which is suspended in a dramatic crash scene in the depths of a Pacific island jungle (below).
However the thing that made the greatest impression on me at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre was not the aircraft on display, or even the dioramas in which the planes are set. Rather, it was the information panel about the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), one of four information boards about women’s role in the war.
The British military established the ATA in 1939 to ferry aircraft from factories and repair workshops around Britain to where they were needed for active service. Pilots were recruited from amongst groups considered unsuitable for active service due to age, gender or disability. Remarkably, in an age when equal pay wasn’t deemed worthy of serious consideration, ATA women were paid the same as men.
To illustrate the sexist thinking of the age, the panel quotes the editor of Aeroplane Magazine. He (and sure as hell, it was a he and not a she) declaimed as follows:
The menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and can’t yet cook her husband’s dinner.Source: The editor of Aeroplane Magazine, quoted in a display panel at the Dangerous Skies Exhibition, as recorded on 29 October 2019
Wow, don’t hold back, will you! With this quotation the Aviation Heritage Centre transcends mere aviation history, and opens a window on serious social and cultural matters. While we know instinctively that many men must have held such views at the time, to see them set out so starkly in black and white is a shock. It’s easy sometimes, particularly for the older generation, to look back to the “good old days.” But the sad fact is that, so often and in so many ways, they weren’t actually very good at all.
The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a truly remarkable museum. It would be remarkable anywhere in the world, but to find it here in an almost forgotten corner of New Zealand’s South Island is astonishing.
Although it touches on the role of New Zealanders in both wars it isn’t in any real sense a national museum, but rather a museum of two huge and horrible world conflicts fought thousands of miles away and, as we’ve seen, some social issues too. That the Centre is here and, by all accounts thriving – two more hangars are planned – is testimony to the vision, enthusiasm and sheer hard work of the Trust’s volunteers and Sir Peter Jackson.
Well done you guys, you’ve done a brilliant job and I’d like to think that as many people who pass this way – Kiwis and foreign tourists alike – will call in to admire what you’ve created at the Omaka airstrip on the outskirts of the little town of Blenheim on the South Island of New Zealand, somewhere in southern Pacific Ocean, a very long way from anywhere else.