Wings Over Wairarapa 2009

Having been busy at the time the 2007 show was on I finally made it again to the airshow the NZ Sports and Vintage Aviation Society puts on. This year it was held on the 17th and 18th of January with the weather turning out a lovely clear sky for the Saturday I was at the show. Last time I was there not only did I manage to twist my foot, limiting my mobility, but I spied a tent and grandstand that had an excellent view of proceedings. I decided then that next time I wanted to be in that grandstand and accordingly I purchased the more expensive gold ticket that gives you access to it.

Now regular one day pass tickets are $30 per adult and permit you access to the bulk of the airshow grounds. Gold tickets are a tad more pricey at $135 per adult for a one day pass. However they give you access to a dedicated car park close to the airfield, a grandstand and dining tent to watch the show from, a complemntary buffet lunch and in the dining tent a cash bar operating throughout the day. The later making it easy to keep hydrated through the day as they sold fruit juice on ice as well as alcoholic drinks. Also in close proximity to the grandstand were the announcers for the day which meant we often got involved in the special events like the WWII veterans meet & greet as well as the Corsair showing off its folding wing action.

Of course the most noteable feature is that the grandstand is positioned right on the corner of where the two runways intersect and is the target point that the pilots aim for when performing displays. It made for an excellent vantage point for seeing the planes in action. Now if you are here for the planes and want to see them at their best then the cost of the ticket is entirely worth it. Not only are you in the best position but, thanks to the cost, the number of people in the gold area was not huge which kept overcrowding plus rampant small children to a minimum. Given my experiences at the last show I really enjoyed this - especially given that the crowd count was being talked up at about 45,000 people present this year. Which, if I remember correctly, is up about fifteen thousand from the 2005 show.

The one detraction is simply that the size of the crowd is now making travel to Masterton a slow process. I drove up and while I had allowed extra time it took me the better part of two hours to get to the car park, of which a good forty minutes was spent in line waiting to park. Now this isn't due to a failiure on the part of the show organisers - traffic wardens were out and in place to direct things. It simply is that the number of people is reaching a size that I am now wondering if the aerodrome is capable of adequitely handling it. Certainly if it keeps growing at the rate it has over the last two years then it is going to out grow its venue. Which must be a nice problem for the show runners to have - always nice to have to worry about having a too successful event...

Not that everything went perfectly for the show. For starters the wind on the day was a little too gusty to allow the pre-World War I aircraft to take to the skies. Their low speed and comparitive lightness meant that trying to fly in such variable wind conditions was a very good receipe for disaster and while it was a shame to not see them in the air it was a sensible decision to keep them grounded. Also missing was one of the stars of the show, a TR 9 Spitfire. Sadly this aircraft had a bad landing the day before the show. Fortunately no one was hurt and the aircraft itself is still in good order but damage was sustained to the prop plus landing gear which rendered the plane not air-worthy and thus unable to be in the display. This was a shame as I was looking forward to seeing and hearing this legendary aircraft.

Still there was plenty to see and hear over the day. So shortly before proceedings kicked off I finished applying sunscreen, made sure my sun hat was firmly on and keyed up my camera. Now knowing this event was coming and the difficulty I had with my Canon PowerShot S2 IS I had planned ahead and finally succumbed to the purchase of a digital SLR. I've been sitting on my old Canon EOS 500 and lenses for some time now as I waited for prices to drop. Well that and I was waiting for full frame sensors to become ubiquitous. Sadly this hasn't really happened so I have ended up with a 28mm sensor rather than the normal 35mm focal plate that my lenses are calibrated for. This is what gives the 1.6x correction factor when using standard lenses. Sadly the camera market, rather than converging back on a full frame 35mm sensor has instead gone down the route of adapting the lenses to work with the smaller sensor size. This isn't a bad approach per se but does mean that when working with the older lenses you constantly have to do a little mental arithmetic when working out what were acceptable shutter speeds for a given focal length.

Photographers setting up for the day. (348Kb jpeg) But the end results of having a fast focusing proper SLR for taking the photographs made a big difference. I quickly settled on using my 75-300mm F3.5 lens as the planes were sufficiently high up that I needed the best focal length I could muster. It doesn't hurt that with the ultrasonic motors it is a quick and quiet worker too. Combine this with a Canon 450D back, a polarising filter and an 8Gb card and I was settled in for a long day of shooting. In the end I came away with about 519 shots - meaning an average of one shot about every 35 seconds for the entire day. Having more storage on the card than I know what to do with means that I could be free to experiment a bit without worrying about either wasting film or running out of space. Digital photography is a good fit for this kind of event and while I got a lot of rubbish the strike rate for vaguely decent shots was still around one in five. This is not to say that I had anywhere near the fanciest kit present on the day - far from it. As can be seen in the shot to the right several 600mm F3 lenses turned up. I'd love to have a play with one of those someday.

Parked planes and the crowd. (254Kb jpeg) This shot to the left gives an idea of the size and scale of the crowd. Even this is just a taste of it - I couldn't get a good vantage point to do an overview of the airfield as a whole but to give you an idea the crowd extended in similar numbers for around 120 degrees field of view to the right. Certainly I have to wonder how the locals feel about the show as it definitely brings Masterton to a halt while the traffic is streaming in and out. Still a remarkable turn out and while I had the better viewpoint on the grandstand I also didn't really have time to go out and see the wide range of stalls and stands present at the show. Various historical societies looked to have quite interesting displays present and I aim to make it a point for the next show I attend to actually go have a look at these. There also were the parked plane displays which let you have a close look at the hardware which, again, I mean to actually go do next time. Gives me something to look forward to, right?

The show itself began with a Kittyhawk P40 and the Albatross L39 doing a brief flight with a passenger each. These seemed to be early almost unofficial flights to do favours for friends and while very nice to see the aircraft it marked the start of a slightly muddled approach to the programme of events through the day. We also got a slightly more unusual craft in the form of a Gyrocopter. Looking like a helicopter these unusual craft don't actually power the rotors above the craft to generate lift. Rather they spin as a result of the forward motion imparted by the rear facing propellor and sit somewhere between a fixed wing plane and a helicopter for manuverability with an astonishingly low stall speed. I half wonder if these flights were done to fill in the gap left by the pre-WWI planes being unable to fly that day. Certainly the program that we actually saw was markedly different from the scheduled one outlined in the show programme.

A P40 Kittyhawk taxiing. (286Kb jpeg) An Albatross L39 jet taking off. (250Kb jpeg) Celier Xenon Gyrocopter in flight. (165Kb jpeg)

Not all the early airplanes were grounded and we had a selection of a Gypsy Moth, a Nieuport 11, several Tiger Moths and a German Albatross DIII flying to represent the early days of powered flight. It is still remarkable to think that these planes are still under a hundred years old and were produced within twenty years of powered flight having been made practical. While they look antiquated and slow they still represent a huge leap in performance and ability over the Wright brother's flier. The Tiger Moths travelled as a pair with streamers trailing their wings which made the twists and turns of their flight that much more graphic and plain to see.

Dehaviland DH82A Tiger Moth trailing streamers. (169Kb jpeg) German Albatross D3 in flight. (227Kb jpeg) Italian Liveried Nieuport 11. (286Kb jpeg)

We then got the Yaks doing a degree of racing and display aerobatics around the airfield. The Yak pilots have been obviously practicing heavily as their routine was especially smooth and practiced. In fact out of all the display groups on the day, bar the military, the Yaks pilots consistantly had clean and well timed aerobatics.

Yaks racing in formation with smoke. (180Kb jpeg) Yak heeling over and giving a good view of the cockpit. (182Kb jpeg) Yak taxiing past the stands. (322Kb jpeg)

This then led into more specialist aircraft - ones adapted or developed for roles and New Zealand led the way with one area - crop-dressing. It seems we were the first to take a Tiger Moth and turn the passenger seat into a fertiliser delivery system. This takes precision flying because you have to fly low and close to the ground. It also requires take off and landing from difficult, often makeshift, airfields as well the terrain itself usually being tricky - which is why aerial dressing is useful. Of course this has developed further with specialist aircraft, like the Air Tractor, being built expressly for the job. The tractor is an ungainly looking beast with large oversize wings, a high mounted cockpit and overall stubby looks with its short length compared to the wing span. It makes up for it in low speed low altitude maneuverability as well carrying ability - around 1.4 tonnes of fertiliser per plane load.

Tiger Moth crop-dressing solid fertiliser. (149Kb jpeg) Tiger Moth spray crop-dressing. (258Kb jpeg) Air Tractor flyby. (200Kb jpeg)

The Harvards then got into the act with their own 'Roaring 40s' display act. This was a solid routine with some very tidy flying but in my opinion it lacked a little of the flair that the Yaks showed. This might be because the Harvards fly differently from the Yaks and limit matters a bit - I don't know.

Harvards formation flying. (142Kb jpeg) Harvards formation flying. (162Kb jpeg) Harvards returning to land. (126Kb jpeg)

Lunch then was served and a brief break in the flying then occured. It resumed with an oldy but a favourite of mine - the de Havilland DH 115 T.55 Vampire jet. From the sound and the clearly Thunderbirds inspiring shape of it just tickles that inner kid in me that used to watch the show religiously loving the big chunky machinery it featured. Somehow the modern machines haven't quite got the same visual charm which is why it is still a thrill to see this plane in action.

de Havilland Vampire preparing for takeoff. (300Kb jpeg) Albatross L39 and de Havilland Vampire flying together. (159Kb jpeg) Vampire banking past. (144Kb jpeg)

With the jets safely landed the focus of the show shifted to the second world war planes in the pacific. In particular the Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk and the Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina. Again the Catalina is one of those planes that is easily recognised and well liked by many. Interestingly they were offering a ride in the plane this show and without knowing the pricing asked for this I was sorely tempted. Getting a chance to actually fly in one of these unique machines would be quite the buzz I suspect. Especially given that, due to its low airspeed and large observation blisters, the view from it would be especially good. It also helps that this plane has the same distinctive engine drone as the DC3 Dakota.

Curtis P40 Kittyhawk prepping for takeoff. (282Kb jpeg) Catalina prepping for takeoff. (254Kb jpeg) Catalina and a Kittyhawk share the sky. (196Kb jpeg)

Catalina with the float pods down. (176Kb jpeg) Catalina and Kittyhawk against clouds. (191Kb jpeg) Kittyhawks flying by. (156Kb jpeg)

While the Catalina and the Kittyhawks were doing their thing one of the monsters of WW2 was doing its party trick down on the airfield. I am referring, of course, to the FG-1D Corsair. The party trick is the ability of the Corsair to fold its wings, a vital part of its utility in Naval use off aircraft carriers. So to this end the Corsair rolled up in front of the mess tent and grandstand area to show us it folding and unfolding its wings. What someone forgot is that part of the reason the Corsair has the gull wing step is that it has an exceptionally large propellor diameter and is quite capable of shifting large volumes of air. Add to this a slightly heavy aircraft and you can probably guess what happened with the Corsair rotated around to then taxi onto the runway and takeoff. Yep, several missing hats and quite a few forcibly closed umbrellas later and I strongly suspect we won't be seeing this done at future airshows. Certainly not right up close to the dining area...

Corsair wings folded up. (244Kb jpeg) Corsair wings down. (305Kb jpeg) Corsair wings down. (385Kb jpeg)

Corsair flying by. (147Kb jpeg) Corsair showing its belly. (198Kb jpeg) Corsair and pilot. (233Kb jpeg)

So we had a break for lunch in which the Yaks and a MX2 stunt plane putting on various aerobatic moves. I missed most of this because the pangs of hunger had kicked in and I was in the lunch line inside the tent. This meant I could hear beautifully what was going on but not see a heck of a lot. That and the camera took a well earned rest as well. So with victuals in hand I got back in position on the grandstand in time to see the NZ Army begin their display. Now during the day we had a local celebrity announcer, one Jim Hickey, whose biggest claim to fame is presenting the weather forecast on one of the nations network news channels. He and a more local aviation enthusiast provided the audio commentary by loudspeaker for all the proceedings. Having done some digging I can see why he was chosen - he has a pilots licence himself and has made a documentary series involving him using a Cesna to fly himself into the more remote portions of New Zealand. Clearly he has a more than passing interest in aviation and it doesn't hurt that he is generally well liked for his weather presentation.

Unfortunately this didn't translate into a particularly interesting commentary as he spent most of the day either simply describing what the planes were doing without going into much background on why the plane is doing it or the history of the planes themselves. His local partner did try to colour in some details but was often over-ridden by Jim either joking about something or once again just describing what the planes were doing. What really irked me though was that during the army display we had a female officer come up to the announcing platform to fill us in on what the army pilots were doing. She was excellent in not only informing us to what the maneuver is for but also giving us some background on the pilots performing them as well. What she got from Mr Hickey was a number of, frankly, chauvanistic comments masqerading as joking as he complained about women pilots maneuvering badly and a bunch of other sexist nonsense. Not only is this a shame and slightly embarrasing to hear but it meant that this commentary simply wasn't a patch on the one provided over the 2005 airshow. That commentary told you a lot on the history of the planes, the roles they were used in and their overall significance to aviation history. If I might be so bold I'd strongly suggest to the S.V.A.S. people organising the airshow to resist the tempation to go for 'celebrity' and keep the people they have been using to do the commentary.

As for the Army display itself, this was quite a bit of fun with a squadron of Iroquois helicopters demonstrating their abilities with a variety of maneuvers. One often demonstrated skill was that of lifting and hoisting with some hapless car being dropped to show the lifting power of the helicopter. Naturally the joke was that this car was parked incorrectly and the army was helping with parking enforcement. Also demonstrated was winching of people and fire-fighting loads. The Iroquois has a very distinctive noise when operating and of course has a heavy association with the Vietnam war where they were used heavily for the first time as the Air Cavalry.

Iroquois low flying. (267Kb jpeg) Three Iroquois formation flying. (247Kb jpeg) Iroquois crew finishing winching. (188Kb jpeg)

Backing them up was a pair of Sioux scouting helicopters. These are somewhat slow beasts that I couldn't help but wonder how many pilots were overly exposed to enemy fire due to the low height and slow speed of these machines. We then got two Iroquois 'dancing' with each other. This meant they rotated around facing each other as they moved up the airfield. A tricky bit of flying and done really well by the air force pilots here.

Sioux low flying. (291Kb jpeg) Sioux low flying. (260Kb jpeg) Iroquoi helicopters rotating around each other - effectively dancing up the airfield. (279Kb jpeg)

The final armed forces helicopter to feature was the Navy's new Seasprite. While not the most beautiful of machines to look at it certainly is a very functional beast and it performed a variety of tasks including a rapid fast rope deployment of a platoon of troops, winching someone up from a moving car and general hovering about while putting the landing gear up & down. The armed forces display continued with a parachute team dropping in. As they came down they were trailing smoke canisters that potentially could set things alight, like parachutes for instance, due to the heat they operate at. Seems slightly mad strapping such a hot item to your ankle if you ask me but they carried the jump off without incident.

Seasprite helicopter flying sideways. (254Kb jpeg) Seasprite helicopter winching a man up from a moving car. (295Kb jpeg) Seasprite helicopter hovering. (194Kb jpeg)

This left the most dynamic of the airforce displays - the Red Checkers, who are our aerobatic display team in the airforce. Their five planes put on a really excellent display with some very tight formation flying doing a variety of loops, turns and synchronised maneuvers. It seems that having the professionals there put the pressure on with the Yak pilots who then did their own large wing of formation flying with all eight executing some loops and rolls together. Having a numerical edge they exploited this putting on some very impressive large wing formation flights.

Red Checkers formation looping. (215Kb jpeg) Red Checkers formation looping. (184Kb jpeg) Red Checker flying closeup shot. (262Kb jpeg)

Yak-robatics. (179Kb jpeg) Harvard banking. (241Kb jpeg) DC3 Dakota landing. (242Kb jpeg)

P51 Mustang taxiing. (335Kb jpeg) P51 Mustang banking. (231Kb jpeg) P51 Mustang, Corsair and two Kittyhawks in loose formation. (221Kb jpeg)

We then had a tribute to the RAF with planes fropm WW1 and WW2 featured including a stalwart - the DC3 Dakota. Here it was painted in RNZAF colours and in many ways provided me with one of the best shots I got from the entire airshow. Once the warbirds had swung past and the civilian planes had touched down again we got the Airfield Attack segment. This is the shows big finale where a staged mock battle takes place over the airfield. At least that is the plan and certainly something did happen over the airfield but in perhaps the weakest note of the whole show the attack was all taking place just a little too far away from the crowds to really see. It was co-ordinated with soldiers on the ground, a Valentine tank and other support vehicles. All of these were also staged on the far side of the runway. P51 Mustang flying free. (166Kb jpeg)

Now I don't know if this was a safety measure or not but the end result was that it was very hard to make any sense of what was going on. Another change this year was the absence of the gun simulator used in the 2005 version of this. The end result is that the dogfight was largely a lot of circling with some difficulty actually telling what was going on. Similarly the ground forces who were evidently having a good time out there staging their mock battle were nearly impossible to see clearly. It seems such a shame to go to all that effort and have such a muddly event to follow. That said having so many planes active at once in the sky still made for a strong conclusion to the day and the begining of the journey home. The last shot I want to use on this page is the one of the Mustang banking off into the sky. For me it encapsulates a lot of what the airshow is about and the spirit of aviation.

Finally for the photography nerds out there the images used on this page have been largely untouched. One or two have been cropped. Having recently got my hands on a copy of Lightroom I've begun to discover the extent to which a digital image can be manipulated even before you put it into a heavy duty tool like Photoshop. At the time of typing this I have played with several images - including the shot of the DC3 Dakota. These can be found over on the Backdrops page of this site. A modicum of tweaking has improved the images no end.

Philip R. Banks
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