Classic Fighters - Omaka Airshow 2019
The thundering noise of a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18C fighter jet astonished the visitors of the 2019 airshow at Omaka. That is no wonder, as fighter jets are a rare view in New Zealand since 2001, when the RNZAF disbanded its last A-4 Skyhawks. The secret star of the show, which focuses on propeller-driven aircraft, was however once again the FlugWerk FW190. It celebrated a new maiden flight after its landing accident four years ago. This warbird dominated a highly diverse flying program.
Where? Omaka, New Zealand
Easter weekend 2019, it is mid-April. The hot summer months are over, the grape harvest is finished. Ring in the autumn season, and bring on the Omaka Classic Fighters airshow! Before the days are getting short and cold, this traditional airshow event brings together New Zealand’s impressive warbirds collection at Omaka, located at the Northern tip of the Southern island. Omaka’s landscape impresses with its gently rolling hills of the Wither Hills, partly covered at that time of the year by brightly colored vineyards. They provide a unique backdrop and it does not surprising that Yealands, a large winery, is also the main sponsor of the event.
Omaka - Home of the Aviation Heritage Center
Omaka airfield is also home to the “Aviation Heritage Center”. It houses the “Knights of the Sky” exhibition, which focuses on World War I and presents dramatic dioramas. These true-to-life showpieces have been prepared with the skills and proficiency of companies all around Sir Peter Jacksons “Lord of the Rings” empire. In recent years the museum has been expanded to include another section dedicated to World War II, titled "Dangerous Skies". This exhibition remains closed during the airshow because it also serves as a hangar for the airworthy warbirds stationed in Omaka. Only a replica of a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka and a Hawker Hurricane hang from the ceiling during Easter week-end, the remaining dioramas are empty: the Supermarine Spitfire, Avro Anson, FlugWerk FW190 and Jakowlev Jak-3 are airworthy and already outside the museum halls before the airshow weekend starts to get them ready to fly.
But oil pans are also noticeable under some of the World War I aircraft. This clearly indicates they are airworthy and includes an impressive number of five Fokker triplanes. An impressively large triplane formation has been one of the show’s trademarks in the past years, however it did not show up for the 2019 edition.
WWI on a small scale
All in all the WW I spectacle only took place on a reduced scale using the aircraft based at Omaka. This was partly due to troubles going on around "The Vintage Aviator" custom aircraft manufacturer, very well known for its replicas of aircraft from the WW I era, and who usually contributed several aircraft from the era of World War I.
With the absence of their German opponents, British biplanes such as the Sopwith Pup, Bristol Scout or the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2, together with the Nieuport N.11 and N.16, clearly had the air sovereignty this time. While they were circling above the showground, German and Allied ground troops horsed around in an extensive ground theatre setup, amongst them all sorts of historic vehicles, combined with pyrotechnic effects.
Fortunately, the lack of WWI aircraft was well filled by the classic warbirds of later eras. The grand opening even had a touch of Duxford’s Flying Legends - on the Southern hemisphere, and with slightly reduced numbers. All of New Zealand-based Spitfires were flown in close formation: the elegant Spitfire Mk.IX, the powerful Spitfire Mk.XIV.e with its Rolls-Royce Griffon engine and the two-seater Spitfire TR.9. New Zealand is home to a good variety of this iconic warbird.
Classic Fighters for the WWII scenario
Omaka’s undisputed star however was "the Focke-Wulf Fw 190". It is the first FlugWerk-build airframe, which had its maiden flight in Germany and has since then been sold to New Zealand to the “Chariots of Fire Fighter Collection” (CFFC). Four years ago this FW190 suffered a landing accident on the Friday of the airshow when one of the two landing gear brakes failed. Pilot Frank Parker was able to get out unscathed, but the reconstruction of the machine took a long time and was only finished shortly before the event this year. The organizers were therefore very happy to have the FW190 in the air again. It was even put up in the air three times a day for the flying display!
A ground show was also set up for the era around World War II. In the air, of course, the FW190 also participated. It was fighting against a Fleet 16B that somehow did not quite fit into the picture. But it was given a red star overnight as she had to mime a Polikarpov Po-2 that did not get ready for the show in time. This was rather frustrating for the organizers, as it was precisely this Soviet biplane that should have embodied the theme of “Saluting Women in Aviation”. It was the main theme chosen for this year's event, focused on the famous history of the “Night Witches” and their Po-2s fighting the German ground troops in Russia, and being amongst the most catchy stories from this era regarding women and aviation.
The local Marlborough Aero Club also used their bag of tricks for other parts of the scenario. Using a modern gyrocopter for example, that was ‘converted’ by German markings and fictitious identifiers into a Flettner Fl 282 "Kolibri". Also the manned version of the Fieseler Fi 103, known as the “Reichenberg”, was presented as a further German “wonder weapon” and flown as a 1:1 scale model. Flying above the ground theatre, there was again the FW190, fighting against three Spitfires, the Curtiss P-40N Kittyhawk or the North American P-51D Mustang.
In this context, the show organizers wanted to call the war on the Eastern Front into the conscience of the New Zealanders as in that part of the world the focus of World War II is understandably in the nearby Pacific and at most on the Europe’s Western Front. The horror of the war, that played further east with the Russia’s fight against Nazi Germany is almost absent. Airplanes like the Jak-3 and the story about the night witches and the night missions flying the Polikarpov Po-2 should help to convey this part of history to the local audience.
The “Classic Fighters” airshow is also strongly supported by New Zealand’s Armed Forces, which regularly participates with a fine selection of aircraft. Helicopters are also put in the static display, and participating aircraft are either based and nearby RNZAF Base Woodbourne (Blenheim airport) or fly in directly from their homebase. In this year the P-3K Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft could not participate due to operational reasons. But despite that the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II presented a solo display, and the C-130H Hercules made a simulated approach to Omaka’s grass runway.
Also the Agusta A109 and NHIndustries NH90 presented some fly-bys when they came in to land on Friday. The highlight of the RNZAF flying displays was however the very welcome appearance of the SH-2G(I) Seasprite. On Friday it flew just before sunset, bathed in warm sunlight, posing for the spectators in front of the red and golden contours of the Wither Hills.
The venerable Douglas DC-3 and De Havilland Venom in the colors of No.14 Squadrons were two immaculately restored examples of RNZAF's past. Furthermore the recently restored De Havilland DH.104 Devon and T-6 Texan, both in the highly visible light grey / orange color scheme and showing the Kiwi roundel presented some nice formation flying.
Premiere for thundering Australian Hornets
Another obvious highlight was the participation of three Australian F/A-18 Hornets. Since the First World War, Australia’s and New Zealand’s Armed Forces are strongly tied together, the yearly ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) days commemorates those who served in the Gallipoli Campaign, their first engagement in the First World War.
This strong relation justified the effort for the Australians to deploy three jets to Woodbourne in order to present an F/A-18C Hornet flying display at Omaka. The display was flown fast and close, and with special marked jets. How great it was to hear jet noise thunder over Omaka!
The rest of the program can be called easy going, casual and with a good dose of New Zealand humor. The "Pioneer Race" can be called an ‘Omaka classic’. It features aircraft from the early days of aviation and unicycles cavorting on the grass runway as Blériots and other replicas from the aviation’s early era try to get of the ground as quickly as possible. Later on, a crew member of a classic Beech 18 threw packets containing ‘white powder’ out of its aircraft while American muscle cars from the 1960s cruise in front of the audience on the ground. A helicopter, with additional 'Policia' stickers attached and thus mimicking a Colombian law enforcement aircraft, and policemen on the ground quickly put an end to this kind of drug trafficking.
This type of action and entertainment is an integral part of the Omaka airshow. "Only at Omaka" is not-for-nothing one of the advertising slogans for the show, and is very well representative for the spectacle that brings up new highlights every other year.
Further colourspots in the deep blue Omaka sky were numerous aerobatic displays ranging from large formations of Nanchang CJ-6, T-6 Texans / Harvards or a Pitts S1S.
Challenging times - and a lucky Friday
In 2017, the Omaka airshow also saw some challenges. The devastating Kaikoura earthquake and subsequent road closures in the vicinity resulted in meager numbers of visitors. Additionally bad weather on the actual airshow weekend caused a huge drop in visitor numbers and related revenues.
For this year's 10th anniversary of the "Omaka Classic Fighters", the organizer could not afford something like this again. And fortunately this year such things did not happen. With a great Friday afternoon and evening show and a stunning Saturday, all worries were washed away. Washed away, however, was also once again the Sunday show, again due to bad weather. The clouds on Saturday evening were already a sign for the 'wash-out' the next day...
In this context, attending the Friday show proved to be a wise decision again, even if it only starts late in the afternoon. A deep-blue sky and pleasant temperatures rang in the day and a good-sized, though not crowded number of visitors gathered around the airfield. All of them obviously with a very different temperature perception: winter jackets were well mixed with T-shirts, the only constant seemed to be the leather hat of the male visitors, serving as a sun protection and a 'must have' accessory.
Friday was a relaxed day, with less flying than on the weekend itself, but it gave a good glimpse of the highlights for the coming days. Towards the evening, when the sun was low over the horizon, the planes were bathed in warm light before an impressive fireworks display after sunset concluded the day. By then at the latest, everyone had at least put on their thick jackets as temperatures were already on the single-digit range. Winter is not far away, at Easter in New Zealand.