An unexpected delight: the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

It ain’t necessarily so.

Back in the day, when our mortgage shackled us to the grindstone and retirement seemed like an impossible dream, I worked a while for The Organisation.  The boss made it his life’s work to big us up, forever flouncing around on the national stage, giving it large, telling everyone who’d listen – and those who wouldn’t, too, given half a chance – that The Organisation had it nailed, and led where the rest could only follow.

And guess what, everyone believed him.  Many’s the time we’d be at a conference when some poor star-struck soul would sidle up to one of us and whisper “Gee, you must so proud to work for The Organisation.  I mean, like, they’re so far ahead of the field.  If only my miserable little organisation could be as good as The Organisation.”  We lapped it up of course, thought we were the dog’s bollocks.   Only we weren’t.

It took a while for me to work it out, but the truth was that it was all puff and wind, that The Organisation was little better than average.  A veritable curate’s egg, good in some parts but mediocre in others.  Only in one thing did The Organisation truly excel, and that was in the management of its public image. 

I recount this story from my career in the 1990s only because, like The Organisation, New Zealand may be flattering to deceive.

New Zealand’s image is of a pristine land at the other end of the world, safely distant from the environmental woes that blight our own miserable existence.  According to this view the country is a natural paradise, all jagged peaks and imposing glaciers and raging rivers, a landscape stuffed full of charismatic wildlife and exotic vegetation.  Reflecting this utopian image, since 1999 the marketing guys at Tourism New Zealand having been running a campaign they call 100% Pure New Zealand. 

But it ain’t necessarily so.

In April 2019, a story in the Guardian told the world that “a report on the state of New Zealand’s environment has painted a bleak picture of catastrophic biodiversity loss, polluted waterways and the destructive rise of the dairy industry and urban sprawl.”

The report in question is “Environment Aotearoa 2019.”  It’s an impressive but sobering document which presents “nine priority environmental issues for us as a nation in 2019.” The priority themes identified in the report are as follows:

  1. “Our native plants, animals, and ecosystems are under threat.  Our unique native biodiversity is under significant pressure from introduced species, pollution, physical changes to our landscapes and coast, harvesting of wild species, and other factors. Almost 4,000 of our native species are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction.
  2. Changes to the vegetation on our land are degrading the soil and water.  Logging native forests, draining wetlands, and clearing land have degraded a range of benefits provided by native vegetation, accelerated our naturally high rates of soil loss, and affected our waterways.
  3. Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity.  Growth of urban centres has led to land fragmentation and threatens the limited supply of versatile land near Auckland and other regional centres.
  4. Our waterways are polluted in farming areas.  Waterways in farming areas are polluted by excess nutrients, pathogens, and sediment. This threatens our freshwater ecosystems and cultural values, and may make our water unsafe for drinking and recreation.
  5. Our environment is polluted in urban areas.  Some of our cities and towns have polluted air, land, and water. This comes from home heating, vehicle use, industry, and disposal of waste, wastewater, and stormwater. Pollution affects ecosystems, health, and use of nature.
  6. Taking water changes flows which affects our freshwater ecosystems.  Using freshwater for hydroelectric generation, irrigation, domestic, and other purposes changes the water flows in rivers and aquifers. This affects freshwater ecosystems and the ways we relate to and use our waterways.
  7. The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment.  Harvesting marine species affects the health of the marine environment and its social, cultural, and economic value to us. Fishing could change the relationship that future generations have with the sea and how they use its resources.
  8. New Zealand has high greenhouse gas emissions per person.  Our per-person rate of greenhouse gas emissions is one of the highest for an industrialised country. Most of our emissions in 2016 came from livestock and road transport.
  9. Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand.  Changes to our climate are already being felt in our land, freshwater, and marine environments. We can expect further wide-ranging consequences for our culture, economy, infrastructure, coasts, and native species.”

So, there we are, “100% Pure New Zealand” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  No surprises there, I suppose.  I’ve never yet met a marketing man who didn’t gloss over inconvenient truths, so why should Kiwis be any different? 

It is to New Zealand’s credit that it has done the research and gone public with a report that so compellingly undermines the country’s own self-image and international brand.  But the real test will be whether the report will lead to positive actions that tackle the issues it raises.  I’m an old cynic and so have my doubts, but I look forward to being proved wrong.

New Zealand Bird of the Year, 2017

And the winner is … the Kea

For the last 13 years New Zealand has held a Bird of the Year competition.  Run by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird, it enables the nation to vote for its favourite native bird.  It sounds like a brilliant initiative to get the population engaged with its bird life.  By all accounts there’s lots of media attention, which ensures that conservation gets plenty of air time and column inches.  In 2017, more 50,000 votes were cast, with the final winner being the kea, or mountain parrot.

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Kea.  Photo credit: By Mickaël T. (Kea (mountain parrot)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Forest & Bird say of the kea, which scored 7,311 votes on the poll:

‘Kea are unashamedly reckless. Whether they are testing your car, your brand new alpine tent or your lunch, they certainly make themselves known. Their cheeky antics and curious behaviour often lands them in a whole lot of trouble, landing them the notorious title of ‘clown of the mountains.

Kea are social, raucous, colourful, bold and highly intelligent. But they are now becoming conspicuous by their absence with some reports suggesting they are declining in the wild. Aside from threats such as human foods and materials, traffic, lead poisoning, hunting and illegal wildlife trading, kea are threatened by some of the very things that are set up to help protect them, like predator traps.

David Attenborough famously fell in love the kea; he describes their cheeky – and occasionally destructive – personalities in this film on YouTube.  With his endorsement, the kea was always going to be a contender.  Although they are critically endangered they are often seen at Arthur’s Pass on South Island, where they spend their days trying to shred or nick the windscreen wipers from parked cars.  Arthur’s Pass is, of course, included in our itinerary, and we’re hoping that we may be lucky enough to see a kea there.   I wonder if our car insurance will cover vandalism by a parrot?

Skulduggery!

The Bird of the Year competition plainly captures the public’s imagination.  Passions become inflamed, and some folk even resort to underhand methods to boost the chances of their preferred bird.  The rules state “one person, one vote”, but in 2017 the competition was rocked by reports that an unnamed Christchurch resident set up 112 email accounts to vote for his (or her?) personal favourite, the white-faced heron.  Shame on him, or indeed her!

Herons have a special place in my heart too, for a very personal reason  After my dad died, Julie and I started taking mum out with us on local bird watching trips.  She fell in love with herons, and was always thrilled to see them.  It made birthdays and Christmases so much easier for us – just buy mum a picture of a heron, or a heron T-shirt or a heron carving and she’ll be as happy as Larry.  Now, my mum was a very proper lady and wouldn’t have publicly condoned what happened in 2017, but I bet that wherever she’ll is now she’ll give a little cheer when she finds out just what people will do in support of her beloved herons.  Good on yer, mum.

The first step

To be honest, I never really saw the point of New Zealand.

Poor bloody New Zealand: so far from civilisation, so close to Australia. Why bother? I always thought, who cares?

School didn’t help much. As far as my education was concerned New Zealand didn’t exist. My A-level geography teacher, Laurie Elliott, got some sort of bursary to spend a few months in Australia. As a result, upon his return I learned more about merino sheep and outback iron ore deposits than any English teenager could reasonably wish to know. But on the subject of New Zealand Mr E remained totally silent, and, if it were not for the exploits of the All Blacks knocking seven shades out of the home nations at every available opportunity, it would never have registered on my consciousness at all.

Julie, however, has always wanted to go to New Zealand, and who am I to argue? We’ve got the time and the money so what the hell we thought, we’ll give it a go.  We’ve done plenty of road trips in the USA and Canada, and even spent a month touring Tasmania, so how hard can it be to drive through New Zealand?  If we’re very lucky, we might even run into a kiwi!

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We are agreed that it will be a once in a lifetime trip so we have to get the itinerary right. Tailor made by an expert. With that in mind we contact New Zealand in Depth. We meet with founder and top guy Paul Carberry at his offices in Buxton, where he tries to understand what we want from our trip.

Paul is vastly knowledgeable and passionate about New Zealand. He offers advice on the best time to see penguins, waxes lyrical on landscapes we shouldn’t miss, and cautions against “cheesy” Maori experiences, proposing instead some more authentic alternatives.

And most importantly, Paul never once mentions bungee jumps, zip wires or Lord of the Rings, so our trip should be safe in his hands. We await his draft itinerary with eager anticipation.