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Flying

A magnificent plane at Whitianga Airport

Aviation enthusiasts and historians were very privileged to have a visit to Whitianga last week of a significant piece of New Zealand’s aviation history. The FG1D Corsair made its first visit to Whitianga airfield as part of a training sortie from Ardmore to check and licence some new and younger pilots onto the aircraft.
 |  Keith Skilling  |  ,

Whitianga airfield is ideal for this type of training, the aero club having recently spent many thousands of dollars upgrading the grass surface, and of course its’ proximity to Ardmore being only a ten-minute flight away.

This Goodyear built Corsair is the only remaining example of the 424 Corsairs operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force both here and in the Pacific during World War Two (WWII). After the war it was taken to Hamilton to be scrapped but by good fortune it was saved from the scrap heap, the only Corsair that was saved, and for many years it was stored beside Asplins garage in Hamilton.

In the early 1970s it was purchased by an American collector and was exported to the US for restoration back to flying condition. After several changes of ownership, it ended up at Duxford in England having been purchased by the famous New Zealand pilot Ray Hanna, the ex-leader of the RAF Red Arrows. Ray returned the aircraft to New Zealand in 2004 where it has been a regular participant in airshows ever since.

The Corsair was designed as an aircraft carrier borne fighter aircraft with a very powerful 2000 hp Pratt and Whitney radial engine capable of speeds up to 770 kph and being equipped with six 50 mm cannons it proved to be very successful in the Pacific during the latter part of WWII.

It is easily recognised by its distinctive inverted “gull” shaped wings.

Because the powerful engine required a huge propeller, 14 feet in diameter, room had to be made so that it cleared the ground. This was achieved by “bending” the wing down in a gull shape so that the wheel legs could be made of sufficient length and strength to absorb the shock of landing on an aircraft carrier.

I am very privileged to have been involved with flying this Corsair for the last 30 years, my first experience being at Falaise in Normandy, France, during the fiftieth remembrance celebrations for the WWII D Day landings there on the 6th June 1944.

What a sobering experience it was to be flying low level along the Normandy beaches accompanied by several other WWII fighters, looking down and being touched by the thoughts of what had happened there fifty (now eighty) years ago!  I flew it regularly in Europe over the next ten years including five glorious years with an aerobatic display team of four WWII fighters sponsored by the Breitling watch company, the Breitling Fighters. During this period, we flew dozens of displays in twelve countries to millions of spectators at the majority of major airshows including the Paris Airshow. Our final display was at the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow in 2004. It has been a long and wonderful association.

The Corsair has fortunately been purchased by an Auckland businessman, Mike Smith, so it will be staying in New Zealand. Mike has very generously offered me the chance to fly it again, but it is time to hand over the baton to a younger generation of pilots and train them to fly it and ensure it remains in capable hands. Hence the Whitianga visit.

Mike is very generous with the aeroplane ensuring that the remaining New Zealand Corsair pilots from WWII (currently four still alive) get to see and touch it again, along with ensuring that it will continue to be seen in the skies at future airshows. He spends a lot of his time in Tairua so expect to see more of it in our local skies. So, if you hear the throb of the big 2000hp engine or see its distinctive “gull” wings overhead, pop down to the airfield, it may just land and you can get a close-up view of this magnificent piece of New Zealand aviation history.