Skip to main content

Marking 100 years of military aviation

Inclement weather didn’t stop the aviation buzz as hundreds turned out in Christchurch to celebrate 100 years of military aviation in Aotearoa New Zealand.

22 June, 2023

On Saturday 14 June Christchurch’s Air Force Museum of New Zealand celebrated 100 years since the birth of New Zealand military aviation. Hundreds packed the museum at Wigram to enjoy a gala day commemorating the occasion and, while the weather literally rained on the Air Force’s parade, stopping a planned fly past of aircraft from all the different fleets, it didn’t stop the buzz from the crowds.

The Air Force Museum of New Zealand put on a cracking gala day to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Sir Henry Wigram selling a plot of land to the government of the day, for a bargain, for military aviation use.

Alongside an exhibition detailing the origins of the country’s air power and the museum’s usual exhibits, there was a ground display of A109 and NH90 helicopters, which the public were welcome to explore; children’s activities; and a jazz band to add to the atmosphere.

The museum was quickly filled with excited crowds and dozens of air cadets were on hand to help during the day.

NH90 helicopter conducting a flying display to a crowd of people.

A planned fly past of Air Force aircraft, including the new P-8A Poseidon, was sadly cancelled due to low cloud and rain throughout the day, however the A109 and NH90, which had been on display were able to take off and put on a show for the visitors.

The Ground Display director Squadron Leader (SQNLDR) Sean Willis said overall the day was a success.

“The amount of cadets we have here volunteering to assist has been phenomenal. We’ve got just over 60 helping in the museum and externally with the traffic management and security. They’re all enthusiastic to be here and they are all very excited in the lead up to this event.”

The crowd numbers were gratifying and the fact that big numbers started early in the day was pretty good, he said.

“It’s great to see the buzz and excitement, even with the inclement weather – there are a lot of people out there looking at the A109 and the NH90 and seeing what there is to see.

“This is a very significant day for me. It was the start of the journey from a Permanent Air Force to its evolution into the RNZAF over the last 100 years. Credit to those individuals who, back in 1923, did all the hard work to get this established and start the military aviation journey for this country – it’s pretty special.”

20230617 NZDF K1055157 023

The day recognised the vision and passion of Sir Henry Wigram and others to put something in place, thinking ahead of what the nation was going to need when considering the conflicts and activities that were happening around the world at the time, SQNLDR Willis said.

Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Andrew Clark was also at the museum marking the occasion recognising work that had begun the journey to military aviation a century earlier.

Sir Henry Wigram was a foresighted man who could see what was coming along the track, he said.

“When he was the Mayor of Christchurch they had horse-drawn trams – he was the guy thatsaid they should start using an electrified tram system. Later on when he was a Member of Parliament he could see that aviation was going to be a big thing in the future and important to New Zealand, but not everybody in the early days bought into that idea.

“Sir Henry Wigram spent a lot of time convincing others, convincing the New Zealand Government they should be investing in aviation in the future. And then extrapolating from that, that military aviation was going to be important as well. He was ultimately successful with his ongoing persistence and generosity.”

When the Permanent Air Force was created a century ago, there were about a dozen peoplein it. That number increased to about 200 in 1937 when the Royal New Zealand Air Force was officially established, AVM Clark said.

“Just seven years later there’s 42,000 New Zealanders in uniform in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. So there was this massive expansion and hundreds and hundreds of aircraft during World War II and of course we were training hundreds of people to send them offshore to war. Today we are an organisation of about 2500 people.

“Right from those early days aviation, military aviation and the Air Force has really been partof the fabric of nation-building of New Zealand. The early military aviation was part of establishing aviation throughout New Zealand, it was part of building the first airlines, we were also there with the government and farmers experimenting on how to do top dressing and so really it’s part of New Zealand’s story.”

AVM Clark said it was a shame that on the gala day the weather didn’t play ball.

“So after about 120 years of aviation, 100 years of military aviation and we’re still working on controlling the weather.”

20230617 NZDF R1055669 017