Airshow makes long-awaited comeback

Necks craned once again towards the skies over Wānaka yesterday as the internationally acclaimed Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow made a welcome return after a six-year hiatus.

Typically the quietest day of the three-day event, practice day still saw generous crowds of aviation enthusiasts bustling through the airshow grounds, eyes darting skyward the moment the tell-tale drone of an aircraft was heard overhead.

Warbirds Over Wanaka general manager Ed Taylor said they expected up to 15,000 people had passed through the gates yesterday, while between 60,000 and 70,000 would attend across the entire weekend.

He said although they had made efforts to increase the show’s capacity beyond 2018’s limits, they had still managed to sell out both Saturday and Sunday’s shows.

"That's unprecedented for our airshow.

"But we take the safety and comfort of our visitors quite seriously ... so we’ve capped numbers so that everyone can enjoy themselves at the airshow and get here nice and safely."

Among the highlights of this year’s show was an ex-RNZAF de Havilland DH98 Mosquito NZ2308, which was the result of a 15-year restoration project that cost about $12 million.

"It’s a wooden-framed aeroplane from early in the Second World War and it's got these two amazing Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.

"It’s just a stunning aircraft."

Mr Taylor said confirming the plane’s place on the weekend’s roster had been a nail-biting experience, with the plane only having completed its test flights a week ago.

The aircraft will be piloted by aviation all-rounder Steve Hinton, a former Reno Air Race champion, and current president of the Planes of Fame Museum at Chino, California.

This weekend’s show would be the only opportunity for local aviation enthusiasts to see the plane in action before it is shipped over to the United States.

Pilot Steve Hinton, of the United States, stands in front of a newly restored Mosquito de...
Pilot Steve Hinton, of the United States, stands in front of a newly restored Mosquito de Havilland DH98 fighter bomber, which will be in action at Warbirds Over Wanaka today and tomorrow. Photo: Gregor Richardson
"It’s a ... chance in a lifetime for many people to see this amazing World War 2 fighter-bomber in the flesh, flying at an airshow."

This year’s show would also be the end of an era for Warbirds, marking the first show since the death of founder Sir Tim Wallis in October last year.

"I’m just so annoyed that Tim can’t be here to see the Mosquito at his airshow, the airshow he started 36 years ago.

"But I know he’ll be looking down with his big grin as we salute him at the end of the day on Saturday and Sunday."

Earlier in the day, the New Zealand Red Stars YAK-52 aerobatic team would also pay tribute to their founder and Warbirds legend, the late Brett Emeny, who died in May last year.

Mr Taylor said there had been several challenges involved in organising such an event in the wake of the pandemic, and it was an experience he "wouldn’t wish on anyone".

"A lot of the people we’ve dealt with, a lot of suppliers, a lot of companies we dealt with don’t exist any more or changed direction and are not in the business any more.

"We’ve got a whole new crew here, so everyone’s having to learn on the go. So it’s been bloody tough actually, but we’ve made it, we’re here.

"And the smiles on the faces here today tell me that it was worth it all the way along."