Staggerwing to be sum of many parts

Two of the Beechcraft Staggerwing aircraft being restored at Wanaka Airport by Twenty24  Ltd. The...
Two of the Beechcraft Staggerwing aircraft being restored at Wanaka Airport by Twenty24 Ltd. The ‘‘Antarctic Staggerwing’’ is the red one on the right. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
They were the Lear Jet of the 1930s that flew corporate America on their pre-war business trips. Now, as Mark Price reports, four of the fast and opulent Beechcraft Staggerwing have become part of the Wanaka aviation scene.

Restoration of New Zealand's first dedicated air ambulance is about to begin in Wanaka.

As a result, Wanaka Airport-based restoration business Twenty24 Ltd has a huge task ahead of it.

The 1930s Beechcraft Staggerwing biplane is in hundreds of pieces - some spruce, some steel, some aluminium, some rubber, some fabric.

Callum Smith and wife Trish Wrigley with one of the Staggerwing aircraft they have been working...
Callum Smith and wife Trish Wrigley with one of the Staggerwing aircraft they have been working on. PHOTOS: MARK PRICE
Opening the shipping container in which it is stored is not unlike opening the box of a ready-to-assemble model aircraft - except many of the pieces are worn out, damaged or missing.

The Staggerwing is one of four of the Staggerwing aircraft being restored or maintained by Twenty24 Ltd owners Callum Smith and wife Trish Wrigley.

It was built in Kansas in 1936, and bought new by the Auckland Aero Club with financial help from St John Ambulance.

Mr Smith said it was New Zealand's first dedicated air ambulance and flew patients around the country - there being just enough room for a single patient on a stretcher.

It is believed to have once held the air speed record between Auckland and Christchurch, and records show on one occasion it flew from Auckland to Wigram in 3 hours 46 minutes, before returning to Auckland with a polio patient.

Commercial flights today take about an hour and a-half.

The air ambulance was "impressed" for communications purposes by the Royal New Zealand Air Force when World War 2 began in 1939, but it crashed soon afterwards, and took almost a year to be repaired.

Mr Smith said it was now owned by a Motueka man, but was in many pieces.

"This one is in quite a mess.

"It ground-looped in Australia, in the early '70s, I think.

"A guy recovered it and put it under his basement in Sydney and when we went and picked it up a couple of months ago it was exactly where he had put it 50 years ago."

‘‘Quite a mess’’ ... New Zealand’s first air ambulance in need of restoration.
‘‘Quite a mess’’ ... New Zealand’s first air ambulance in need of restoration.
Mr Smith's company got its first Staggerwing restoration into the air in 2013, and the Australians who owned it - Hong Kong-based Cam and Tracey Hawley - then acquired their second Staggerwing, which was used in the Antarctic by Admiral Richard Byrd in 1939 and 1940.

It sat atop the giant 34-tonne "Snow Cruiser" machine designed to provide accommodation and transport for explorers.

"But when they got the Snow Cruiser to the ice it was a complete failure," Mr Smith said.

"It had big smooth tyres on it and wouldn't drive on the ice."

The Snow Cruiser lies buried by snow, somewhere in the Antarctic, but the plane made it back to the United States before serving with the Royal Australian Air Force and then as an aerial top dresser.

It crashed in 1963, and Mr Smith said it was "quite far gone" when it arrived in Wanaka.

Restoration is well under way, the fuselage replete in its Antarctic expedition red and orange.

"We've painted the fuselage, the wings are finished, the tailplane's finished, it's sort of waiting on an engine out of the States which is being cobbled together over there."

"The owners want it to be original - as it came out of the factory, ready to go to the ice, so that's what we are aiming for."

Because of its historical significance, it could tour the United States when restored.

A photo from 1937 shows a demonstration of a patient in the back of the Staggerwing air ambulance...
A photo from 1937 shows a demonstration of a patient in the back of the Staggerwing air ambulance. PHOTO: ED COATES COLLECTION
The fourth Staggerwing was built for the United States Navy and is now owned by Allan Arthur, of Albury, New South Wales, who has supported the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow over the years with his P-40 Kittyhawk.

Staggerwing aircraft were a luxury item in the 1930s - noted for their speed, their retractable landing gear and for their high-quality interiors.

They got their name because the top and bottom wing are not aligned vertically.

The company restores other aircraft but has become the place to take Staggerwing restoration jobs.

There are about 60 left in the world.

Mr Smith hopes one day all four Wanaka Staggerwing will fly together at the Warbirds airshow.

However, he is not expecting that to be the next show, just five months away.

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