Record numbers flock to Warbirds Over Wanaka show

Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow returned to Wānaka skies with a hiss and a roar over the Easter holiday.

For the first time since 2018, Wānaka thrummed to the sound of engines as pilots flew their magnificent machines over Wānaka Airport, 10km east of the alpine resort.

The shows on Saturday and yesterday each drew a record 30,000 people, while Friday’s practice day drew a record 10,000 through the gates.

Two United States Air Force F-16 fighter jets opened the show on both days with a high-speed flypast, accompanied by a pyrotechnic display.

The programme for the $2 million-plus event unfolded smoothly, with about 80 aircraft on aerial display throughout the weekend.

At lunchtime, graceful silent gliders preceded the thunderous return of the F-16s to open the afternoon session.

The airshow ended with an airfield "attack" and a flypast in tribute to the show’s founder, the late Sir Tim Wallis.

The event also marked the retirement of two figures heavily involved in the airshow governance and management over the last decade.

In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, general manager Ed Taylor confirmed he was stepping back from his role after 12 years at the helm.

Warbirds Over Wanaka Charitable Trust chairman John Gilks also told the ODT he would be retiring in May, after 10 years leading the trust.

"It is with mixed emotions, actually. It is my last airshow as general manager but I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t be involved again in some way. Once you get this airshow in your blood it is hard to get rid of it," Mr Taylor said.

Spectators track a United States Air Force jet through the sky at Warbirds Over Wanaka at Easter....
Spectators track a United States Air Force jet through the sky at Warbirds Over Wanaka at Easter. Photos: Gregor Richardson
Wānaka had turned on the good weather and with record numbers of ticket sales, he could not have asked for a better weekend to retire.

This year’s show and the introduction of Friday lakeside displays were among the things he felt most proud about.

"That [Friday lakefront] has just gone from strength to strength and people love it ... When The Bombettes were singing you could just see the smiles on people’s faces.

"I thought, this is neat, this is living, after lockdown, all those lockdowns. Humans are built to mingle with each other and lockdown wasn’t good for New Zealanders, I think."

With the 2020 and 2022 shows cancelled because of Covid, the last six years had been "pretty tough", he said.

Mr Taylor paid tribute to the sponsors and funders for support during the hiatus and creating the foundation for a strong return.

He also paid tribute to the new team of officials and volunteers who worked on this year’s show.

Event manager Andrena Davis, who recently replaced former event manager Mandy Deans, had done a "fantastic job" drawing in many new exhibitors, he said.

"I think the organisation will be in good hands, whoever steps up to my role," Mr Taylor said.

Parking issues had been reported and were "frustrating". The team would look for a solution for next time, he said.

"We will deal with that."

Final farewell for the RNZAF C130H (NZ) Hercules, as it signs off the last public display for the...
Final farewell for the RNZAF C130H (NZ) Hercules, as it signs off the last public display for the aircraft type in New Zealand at Warbirds Over Wanaka yesterday. These 1960s-vintage heavy-lift aircraft are to be replaced by new larger C-130J-30 models.
Mr Gilks said he would retire once preliminary financial results were available.

This year’s show had been "very successful" and he hoped the board would be able to reveal at its May meeting that the balance sheets would be "about the same as after the 2018 show".

"We have a had six-year drought. It has been tough but we got through it.

"In 2018, we had a good strong base of funds, always intended for an adverse weather event, to use if we had to cancel or refund tickets and pay bills.

"Over the six years we used all of it and even then it wasn’t enough," Mr Gilks said.

The show survived because sponsors agreed the trust could keep their money and apply it to the next airshow. The trust also accessed the former Labour government’s Covid Response and Recovery Fund for significant events.

"Without those, we wouldn’t be here today,"

Mr Gilks also paid tribute to the airshow founder, Sir Tim Wallis, who died last year.

"If it wasn’t for Sir Tim, none of us would be here. He would have been so proud of this airshow.

"To have a gathering close to 70,000 people, hosted by a town of 17,000, is a pretty good effort," he said.

Mr Taylor said life after Warbirds would involve "more cycling", while Mr Gilks promised "I won’t be bored. I have plenty to do."