Show jets test the air

The six jet aircraft that will race around an 'aerial racetrack' at the Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow at the weekend make a slow pass over Wanaka yesterday. Photo by Mark Price.
The six jet aircraft that will race around an 'aerial racetrack' at the Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow at the weekend make a slow pass over Wanaka yesterday. Photo by Mark Price.
Just in case anyone had forgotten the biggest warbirds airshow in the southern hemisphere starts on Saturday, six racing jet aircraft flew low, slow and quietly over Wanaka's lake frontage yesterday afternoon.

Under leaden skies, the three Aero L-29s, two De Havilland Vampires and an Aero L-39 have been practising for their starring role in the Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow.

On Saturday and Sunday, they will race wingtip-to-wingtip around an ''aerial racetrack'' marked by large orange pylons, in a type of race rarely seen beyond the Reno Air Race in the United States.

Much of the banter among the American and New Zealand jet racing pilots at Wanaka Airport yesterday revolved around the differing performance characteristics of the aircraft.

The Vampires are faster; the Aeros take the corners better.

And one of the American pilots was a little bemused at having a speedometer reading kmh rather than mph.

Spectators can expect the fastest of the six jets to hit 640kmh [397mph] on the home straight.

Show general manager Ed Taylor has previously described the pilots as the ''rock stars'' of American jet racing.

Wanaka Airport has been filling up this week with aircraft of all shapes and sizes - the Spitfire has arrived, and the Mustang, the Corsair and the Yaks are in the plane park.

Late yesterday afternoon, the French Air Force contingent arrived in its Casa (mini Hercules) military transport aircraft.

Infrastructure construction was a day ahead of the last show two years ago and was going ''really well'', he said.

Bad weather further north had created ''some challenges'' getting aircraft to Wanaka from the North Island.

While the ''vast majority'' had arrived, Mr Taylor said, there was still doubt yesterday over whether the Harvard aerobatics team would make the show.

''If the Harvards can't make it, it will be a real shame, but it won't affect the airshow at all.''

Mr Taylor said the weather forecast for the weekend indicated better weather for Central Otago than for elsewhere but there were still likely to be ''a few light showers''. An ''old-timer'' had told him a ''good thing'' about grey skies was that it made planes easier to see.

''Also, it's not such a strain looking into the hot sun all day.''

The first official event on the show programme is a free World War 1 ''dogfight'' over Lake Wanaka on Good Friday afternoon, involving six biplanes and triplanes.

Boating has been banned from the lake area below during the performance.

Mr Taylor said the New Zealand Air Force would be doing a ''special event'' at the end of the dogfight, but declined to elaborate.

''You've got to be there to see it. It will be pretty spectacular.''

In addition to the action in the air over Easter, the best jet sprint boats in the country will be competing in the finals of the national championships on a course next to Wanaka Airport tomorrow evening.

Race organiser Chris Munro said yesterday the event was timed to fit in around the warbirds show.

The last jet sprint event at Wanaka attracted a crowd of 6000-7000 people.

Canterbury driver Peter Caughey leads the way in the superboat championship and Sam Newdick, of Hamilton the group A championship.

mark.price@odt.co.nz