Century-old wartime planes, champion top dressing aircraft, aerobatic troupes and near-silent gliders: the Wings Over Wairarapa Air Festival has plenty on offer for the discerning aviation enthusiast. Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the iconic airshow, The Wairarapa Journal meets some of the aviators of Wairarapa, from the old diggers, to the Boeing commanders, to the newest generation of plane fanciers, who share how they found their wings.
Many parents dread long-haul plane trips. Luckily for Larissa Wiegman, her son Joshua discovered the flight simulator app Infinity Flight on the journey between their native Holland and New Zealand, which kept him entertained.
Distraction soon gave way to passion and obsession for Joshua. Now settled at Te Whiti, the 13-year-old is a self-confessed “aviation nerd”, reading anything on aeronautics and airliners that catches his interest.
In fact, his choice of secondary school, Kuranui College, was influenced by its aviation training programme. And, in February, he will be the youngest volunteer at Wings Over Wairarapa.
Doubtlessly, he’ll fit right in – able to reel off as many facts as the veterans.
“I like the expensive planes the most,” he enthuses.
“I like the Boeing 787s – they’re more advanced. They can fly more people, but still don’t look as giant as the 747.
“And they’ve got a twin engine, which means they fly more smoothly and save on fuel.
“I just love that planes can beat gravity and fly into the air.”
Joshua, born in the Dutch province of Drenthe, has had a hankering for knowledge from a young age.
“He loves learning – if there’s something he’s interested in, he’ll go and read everything there is to know,” mum Larissa says.
The Wiegmans migrated to New Zealand last year – suggested by Larissa, who spent her childhood in Waiuku.
Though his most recent flight from Holland help spark his plane fancier tendencies, Joshua got a taste of the piloting life on an earlier holiday, when he and brother Tobias toured the cockpit on a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight before take-off.
“He loved seeing all the buttons and switches,” Larissa says.
“He was allowed to sit in the seats, wear the headgear, touch the throttle. The crew said the boys were allowed to come in because they were the most polite kids on the plane!”
“It’s cool to see all the technology – all the robotics behind the GPS systems and the automatic modes,” Joshua chimes in.
“Though it is scary to think that artificial intelligence could take over flying one day.”
Joshua plans to do the National Certificate in Aviation, available from Year 12 at Kuranui – the only New Zealand secondary school offering glider flight training. Joshua is starting early, winning a free gliding experience at the Greytown Soaring Centre.
He did his first supervised flight in October, which he filmed from a head-mounted GoPro camera.
“He was buzzing afterwards – the instructors thought he was a natural,” Larissa says.
Joshua looks forward to volunteering at Wings, undertaking tasks such as catering, packdown, and meets and greets.
To unwind afterwards, he’ll probably busy himself with Infinity Flight – he is proud to say he’s cracked a level where he steered a plane through 40 knot winds.
“I’d love to be a commercial pilot – or do something with computer science.”
SOARING SANS MACHINE
For Tim Tarbotton, the sky makes the perfect engine.
Most weekends, the Wellington engineering student heads to the Greytown Soaring Centre, an airstrip and glider flight training centre set up on vacant farmland on Tilsons Road, Papawai.
When The Wairarapa Journal called in, Tim was camped out in the main hangar, doing maintenance work on his own glider, an elegant fibreglass contraption he picked up half price after its former owner died. He is happiest when a good 3000m off the ground, relying on weather patterns and air currents to keep him airborne.
If the thermo-dynamics are in his favour, he could be hovering for several hours.
“Gliding is my stress relief,” Tim says.
“It’s so quiet up there! You’re under a glass canopy and there’s no engine noise, so all you can hear is the wind whistling past you.
“And the view is amazing.”
Tim, 24, originally from Ashburton, is a staple of the Wellington Gliding Club, which moved from its past headquarters at Paraparaumu Airport to the Papawai site in 2016. Club members helped build the Soaring Centre’s hangar and clubhouse from the ground – from fundraising, to doing a chunk of the carpentry and plumbing.
Tim himself has been “hooked” on gliding since his first trial flight, while on holiday at Twizel as a teen, and is now vice president of Youth Glide New Zealand – which helps support young people into aviation-related careers.
Gliding, he says, is a science. Glider aircraft, first popularised in 1920s Germany, have no motor and are winched into the air “like a slingshot” by a cable attached to a V8 engine. To stay skyward, pilots follow the trajectory of different air currents, such as thermals (updrafts of warm air), ridge lifts (where air rises after hitting a hill face) and wave lifts (rising and sinking currents).
Experienced glider pilots sense the changes in the atmosphere and chart their course accordingly. Particularly talented aeronauts can identify air bubbles by sight.
“You’re always focused on what’s outside the cockpit – the sky is your engine,” Tim says.
“It can be hard to explain at first. Some people ask, ‘if it goes wrong, does the plane fall out of the sky?’”
Tim has yet to witness that – pilots are trained to look out for paddocks in which to make a safe landing.
In good conditions, however, gliders can go for impressive distances.
“We’ve had people go all the way to Dannevirke. Some have even crossed Cook Strait.”
Tim has trained as a Class 2 engineer, able to inspect and repair gliders, and is working towards the Qualified Glider Pilot certificate, allowing him to work as an instructor.
At Wings, he will be representing Youth Glide New Zealand, where he hopes to promote the sport to the younger generation.
The Wellington Gliding Club has 17 members under 25 – though there’s always room for more, Tim says. “We need youth coming through to keep the sport alive.”
GIRLS CAN FLY
Pip Schofield was never the child handing out lollies on a plane – she’d much rather visit the crew in the cockpit.
“I got really excited whenever the pilots walked by in their uniforms,” she says.
“I’d nudge Mum and whisper ‘I wonder if that’s our pilot!’.I would always ask if I could go and see what was happening at the flight deck.”
These days, Pip, born and raised at Castlepoint, is the one capturing children’s attention on her way through the airport lounge. The 32-year-old is a second officer with Air New Zealand, behind the controls of the new Boeing 787 airbuses. A regular working week could see her land in Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, or Texas – and back to Auckland again. The day Pip spoke to the Journal, she had not long disembarked from a 15-hour flight from Houston.
“The pilots take turns through the night, checking on the flight plan and monitoring air traffic. I’ll probably take a nap soon.
“I got a rest for six hours, but it’s tough on the body. I don’t mind the shiftwork – I hate 8-5 traffic!”
Pip has her rural upbringing partly to thank for a love of flight – watching the top dressing planes sail over her parents’ farm.
“I’d always hope there was a spare seat for me! I did eventually get to go – it was magic.”
While at Wairarapa College, Pip’s father promised her flying lessons – if she passed School Certificate. Two years later, she enrolled at Bay Flight International Flying School, later earning her commercial pilot’s licence.
On graduating, Pip worked as a flying instructor in Vanuatu and then as a 10-seater pilot in Queensland. Work with JetStar back home followed and she was then hired by Air New Zealand in 2016.
At Wings Over Wairarapa, Pip will hold a stall for New Zealand Women in Aviation, of which she is chair. The group (founded by Featherston’s Rhona Fraser, the first New Zealand woman to gain a pilot’s licence following WWII) was set up to promote aviation as a career path for women. Important, Pip says, as women are still under-represented in the flight deck – making up five percent of pilots globally.
“It’s a boys’ club. [Aviation] isn’t tabled as a serious option for girls.
“It’s still seen as something that’s quite macho and masculine and that you have to be a tomboy to be interested in. Which isn’t the case: I’m a girlie girl, who loves handbags!
“I’ve been lucky – the guys I work with are very respectful. To them, I’m just another pilot – my qualifications speak for themselves. Though I do insist they put the toilet seat up on a flight!”
While at Wings, Pip hopes to inspire the girls visiting as “the kid from Wairarapa flying the big jets”.
“When you’re there in uniform, boys will think, ‘oh, cool – a pilot!’ Whereas girls will think, ‘that’s a pilot – I can do that, too’.”
FLIGHT AND FIGHT
Aviation aficionados can chat for hours about combat aircraft – but Greytown’s Jimmy Field has actual experience of the frontline.
In a former life, Jimmy was in charge of the big guns: as a pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF), he commanded state-of-the art fighter jets, worth NZ$137 million and carrying close to 1000lbs of firepower. In 2011, he put his munitions knowledge into practice, taking part in a NATO operation in Libya against the oppressive Gaddafi government.
After 11 years with the RAF, Jimmy returned to Wairarapa and swapped wings for tractor wheels. He does occasionally commute to work – in Triple Whiskey, his 1971 Piper Warrior aircraft.
“I needed to be at the farm at Pirinoa, so I flew down,” the third-generation farmer says.
“It was either a 20-minute drive, or a seven-minute flight. Though it probably took about 10 minutes to push the plane out of the hangar.”
Jimmy became interested in flight as a teenager. Seeing an A4 Skyhawk military plane flying over the family farm, he was inspired by the “extreme noise, speed and projection”.
He started flying lessons at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton and was eventually recruited to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) as a “baby pilot”.
Jimmy later became a fighter pilot, handling the formidable Skyhawks that excited him as a youngster. However, his wings were clipped in 2001, when the then government disbanded the RNZAF’s combat squadrons. So, he joined up with the RAF and picked up where he left off, first piloting the older Jaguar attack jets, then the brand new Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.
“The Typhoons were a big step up. Everything was computerised – the navigation systems, the radar, the comms devices. You had to remember to put in all the correct information.”
The pinnacle of Jimmy’s service with the RAF was Operation Unified Protector, a military intervention exercise to enforce United Nations Security Resolutions on Libya.
Jimmy, part of the squadron carrying out airstrikes against the Libyan Armed Forces, describes the mission as “empowering, but remarkably stressful”.
“You’re in a cramped cockpit for six hours. Between Italy and Libya and back again, I had to stop and re-fuel four times. I burned through about 35 tonnes of fuel!
“You have a huge responsibility. You know there are people down there – you need to get through it with no civilian casualties.”
In these situations, Jimmy says, the success of a fighter pilot depends on “building good habits”.
“You need to be aware. You need awareness of your surroundings, what’s going on below, where there are most likely to be civilians on the ground. There are checks and procedures to follow.
“It’s like a 3D, supersonic game of chess – you’re not going to ‘checkmate’ in 30 seconds; you’re always planning your next move.”
After leaving the RAF and spending time training pilots in Saudi Arabia, Jimmy returned to Greytown in 2016 to take over the farm.
With his days zooming over the African desert behind him, he and wife Hannah are free to enjoy weekend trips to Taupo in Triple Whiskey, while four-year-old son Tristan snoozes in the back seat.
“I love flying over Mt Ruapehu; you can almost reach out and touch it.”
VINTAGE CLASSICS AND SUCCESSFUL FESTIVALS
Tom Williams clearly remembers the first airshow he organised at Hood Aerodrome. It was 1975 and he’d organised a fundraiser for the new Sport and Vintage Aviation Society.
“It was quite relaxed. We charged about 50 cents for entry. Most of the aircraft just came in exchange for a tank of fuel.”
The next airshow on his resume was a grander affair – held in 1999, it was dubbed The Anniversary Show and featured close to 50 aircraft – and “actually made a profit”.
The Anniversary Show eventually became Wings Over Wairarapa, the premier biennial aviation event in the North Island, each show attracting 25,000 spectators and contributing close to $5 million to Wairarapa’s economy. As air show director, Tom had a $1 million budget to play with and iconic machines such as the Vintage Aviator Collection (restored WWI-era aircraft), competitive aerobatics planes and a WWII fighter plane – which attracted guests from as far as Iceland – at his disposal.
Tom has retired as director but still works behind the scenes and is anxiously awaiting the upcoming 20th anniversary show.
“It’s pretty special – we’re fortunate to have access to the old planes that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
For Tom, learning to fly was like “an itch [he] had to scratch”.
While at boarding school at Whanganui, he received flying lessons for his 16th birthday and was trained by a former officer of the Royal Flying Corps from WWI.
He learned in a de Havilland DH 82 Tiger Moth, the aircraft used as a training device by the Royal Air Force pre-WWII, which would become his vehicle of choice.
Tiger Moths are recognisable by their mustard yellow colour scheme, two tiered wings and their open cockpits in which pilots sport leather caps and goggles as protection from wind chill.
“You’d see the pilots wearing scarves – that wasn’t for show. So much oil would spurt out of the engines that they’d need to wipe their googles,” Tom says.
“Tiger Moths aren’t easy to fly; they’re light and designed to accelerate. They’re hard to land, as they’ve no back wheels. And they have no starter motor.
“If you fly them correctly, you’re a reasonable pilot.”
In 1966, Tom bought his own Tiger Moth which was, in those days, a bargain at 400 pounds. Eventually, he founded the Sport and Vintage Aviation Society, aiming to preserve old-style aircraft.
“The Tiger Moths were being sold overseas, or scrapped. They’re made from wood and fabric, so they don’t last if they’re not looked after.
“We wanted to keep them here and protect our history.”
Vintage aircrafts, like Tiger Moths, have featured heavily at Wings. A particular high point for Tom was when Wings played host to a replica de Havilland Mosquito – a highly efficient 1941 fighter bomber, reconstructed in Auckland from original materials and worth close to $9 million.
“I flew the Mosquito back to Auckland and it was the highlight of my career – those things are made to go fast.”
From here, the key to Wings’ survival, Tom says, is a “point of difference” every year, such as the aerial lightshow in 2019.
“Hopefully, we’re still here in 50 years and flying Tiger Moths.”
Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall