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The Royal New Zealand Air Force
A potted history.

Initially New Zealand's military pilots were trained at the 2 private flying schools situated at Kohimarama in Auckland and Sockburn in Christchurch. Once trained these pilots invariably left for England to join the RAF.

A review carried out in 1919 by Colonel A. V. Bettington of the RAF at the request of the New Zealand Goverment suggested that the country should form it's own air arm. The report recommendations were however considered too ambitious by the Government of the time and were basically shelved as was the offer of 100 military aircraft by the British Government. After much procrastination 33 aircraft were finally shipped to New Zealand. The total was comprised of twenty Avro 504s, nine DH9s, two Bristol F2Bs and two DH4s. Refresher courses for military pilots using these machines were held yearly by the Canterbury Aviation Company at Sockburn under the supervision of Captain Len Isitt.

DH4 A7929

By 1923 things were looking more positive with the setting up of the New Zealand Permanent Air Force (NZPAF) as part of the New Zealand Military Forces. The assets of the Canterbury Aviation Company were purchased by the Government and Sir Henry Wigram gifted 10,000 pounds to the new service. In honour of this the Sockburn aerodrome was renamed Wigram. At the same time the Territorial Air Force was set up, comprised of ex World War One pilots. In 1927 an area of land was purchased at Hobsonville, Auckland and by 1929 the seaplane base and land aerodrome were opened there.

During early 1934 the NZPAF was given permission to change it's name to the Royal New Zealand Air Force by the King, and the RNZAF came into being on 27 February 1934.

Fairey Gordon K4005

Expansion finally began to take place during the late 1930's and the Government removed the RNZAF from army control in early 1937. The leadership of Ralph Cochrane who had been appointed as the first Chief of Air Staff in November 1936 added to the impetus of modernising the service. Cochrane's recommendations resulted in the ordering of 30 Wellington bombers in 1937 and the setting up of a more stable infrastructure including new stations at Whenuapai near Auckland and Ohakea near Palmerston North.

The arrival of World War 2 resulted in massive expansion of the service. By war's end the RNZAF had trained 11,529 airmen for flying duties. As well as service in Europe, a great number of these saw service in the Pacific war against Japan. In September 1939 the total manpower of the RNZAF was fewer than 1000 men. By war's end it had reached over 40,000.

Corsair NZ5400

Postwar the RNZAF served with the occupation forces in Japan and suffered the problems of reshaping as a smaller force. By 1952 it had emerged as a compact force of between 4000 and 5000 men and was re-equipped with modern aircraft including Vampires, Sunderlands, Hastings, Bristol Freighters, and Devons. The service had been organised into 5 permanent squadrons (2 fighter/ground attack squadrons, 1 maritime squadron, 1 transport squadron and a communications squadron), in addition to 5 territorial squadrons.

Sunderland NZ4107

By the mid 1950's the RNZAF was serving in Cyprus and Malaya, but the end of the 1950's brought more frustration as Government policy dictated a more compact Air Force with centralised facilities. By the end of the decade the territorial squadrons were long gone and with the exception of the newly arrived Canberras the aircraft were beginning to show their age and morale was weakening.

Canberra NZ6103

June 1962 saw the appointment of Air Vice Marshall Ian Morrison to the top job and with it the rekindling of the RNZAF. The 3 roles of the RNZAF were redefined as Strike, Maritime Reconnaissance and Transport. New aircraft were ordered and brought into service beginning with the Hercules. These were followed by the Orions, Sioux and Iroquois helicopters and finally the Skyhawks in 1970. The RNZAF also saw service in Vietnam and Indonesia during the decade.

Skyhawk formation

The 1970's and 80's were a period of consolidation with some of the older types being phased out. The Bristol Freighters were replaced by second hand Andovers from the RAF and the Vampire trainers with new Strikemasters. Small numbers of Friendships and Cessna Golden Eagles also joined the fleet as the Devons bade farewell. The long range transport task was picked up by a couple of Boeing 727s and New Zealand built Airtrainers took up the ab initio training role.

Strikemaster NZ6361

By the 1990's the whole New Zealand Defence situation had changed with the withdrawal from the ANZUS alliance. Aircraft were upgraded rather than replaced as defence went onto the back burner of successive Governments. Apart from the replacement of the Strikemasters by Macchi 339s, and the updating of the Airtrainers with newer versions there were few upgrades and the aircraft fleets once again began to age.

Aermacchi NZ6461

The new millennium saw major changes once again for the RNZAF. On 08 May 2001 the Government announced that the Strike Force was to be disbanded by the end of that year. The Skyhawks and Macchis were withdrawn from service and offered for sale. On a brighter note the RNZAF began to take delivery of a number of Kaman Seasprite helicopters and the ageing 727s were replaced with a pair of Boeing 757s.

Boeing 757 
Wearinf RNZAF 75 Anniversary markings
31st March 2012
Boeing 757 NZ7571

The service is currently undergoing a period of further aircraft upgrades and a renewal of the helicopter fleet.


Page Authors: Darren Crick, Ivan Prince, Les Billcliff, Tony McDonald, Brendan Cowan & Martin Edwards
Page Updated 06 June 2013


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