'Garden ornament' in honour of grandfather

Pilot and aviation enthusiast Athol Murray (left) with his brother Dave and the nose of a former Royal New Zealand Navy DC-3, likely to have been flown by their grandfather during World War 2. Photo supplied.
Pilot and aviation enthusiast Athol Murray (left) with his brother Dave and the nose of a former Royal New Zealand Navy DC-3, likely to have been flown by their grandfather during World War 2. Photo supplied.

When Athol Murray spotted an old Douglas DC-3 for sale on the internet, the chances of it being one of the planes his grandfather flew during World War 2 were too great to ignore.

So he bought it.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force plane (registration ZK-APB) was formerly an air ambulance in No 41 Squadron, which flew during the final months of World War 2.

''The important thing for me was, my grandfather [James Murray] was the squadron leader of 41 Squadron, so it's one of his aeroplanes.

''He flew DC-3s all over the world - America, Japan, up through the islands.''

Before that, he was a bomber pilot with the Royal Air Force and flew 45 missions over Germany and North Africa.

''I want to restore it so I can make it a tribute to him and what he did as a pilot.''

All that remains of the old plane is the cockpit and nose cone.

But for Mr Murray, that was a bonus. It meant he could drive all the way to Masterton where it was in storage, load it on to his trailer and drive home again with no major transportation costs.

Now, after nearly 70 years, a little piece of the Murray family history takes pride of place on the front lawn of one of the Queenstown aviation enthusiast's properties in Dipton.

Mr Murray said the plane played a significant part in New Zealand's aviation history.

Following the war, it was renamed Popotea and used by the National Airways Corporation (NAC) as a passenger plane.

By the mid-1960s, the plane was retired from the NAC fleet and spent the next 20 years as a top-dressing plane.

''She's been around the block a few times,'' Mr Murray said.

It was withdrawn from service in the early 1980s and the nose of the plane became a landmark when it was mounted at the front of the Aerodrome Tavern in Miramar.

When the tavern closed, it was put on a scrap heap.

Mr Murray said the Sport and Vintage Aviation Society in Masterton heard about it and preserved the cockpit, storing it in a hangar for the past 10 years.

Recently, the society decided it needed the hangar space and listed it for sale. He said the plane got an ''unbelievable'' amount of attention as he crossed Cook Strait on the ferry and drove south on State Highway 1.

''Every time we stopped for petrol we had people coming up - lots of photos and lots of questions.''

Ultimately, Mr Murray said he would like to restore the cockpit and use it as a mobile advertising billboard.

The cockpit had been stripped of instruments and seating, and all that remained were the throttle and steering column.

''Restoring it will all come down to cost. But in the meantime, it's going to be a lovely garden ornament on my wee property in Dipton,'' he said.

john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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