Flying high: a visit to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

If it's good enough for royalty, I reasoned that it was also good enough for me; and so it was that I came to follow the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on a right royal tour of Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre.

The crowds had died down, and Sir Peter Jackson was not there to greet me on the day of my arrival. Nor did I leave clutching a perfect replica flying helmet to pass on to my grandkids. But some things never change; and on a quiet Saturday in June – more than a month after the Royal couple's flying visit (if you'll pardon the pun) the co-pilot and I took a tour of Blenheim's outstanding aviation centre.

Knights of the Sky

The museum occupies a fairly compact space. But it is the quintessential small package, with an eye-popping display of rare Great War aircraft and collected memorabilia of inestimable value. All courtesy of New Zealand's best-known plane spotter: Sir Peter Jackson.

Sir Peter's private collection (Knights of the Sky) is on long-term loan to the aviation centre. It was created by WingNut Films and Weta Workshops in just 10 weeks from start to finish; bringing the stories of World War I (WWI) vividly to life. Each exhibit is like a frozen frame moment.

While the accompanying images (above) will tell you more than a 1000 words, the detail in each exhibit is so exacting that the eye is drawn to a swallow's nest atop a pole in the propeller workshop by the bird droppings at the foot of it.

But it is far more than detailed recreation of real life events that is on offer. Knights of the Sky celebrates the legends of aviation from both sides of the war. By telling the stories of the most famous – or infamous moments – of their illustrious campaigns, we can go way beyond propaganda to genuinely appreciate their heroism.

The museum's prize exhibit is the Caproni Ca 22; the only one of its kind in the world. The Caproni is a parasol monoplane – a rare configuration produced from 1913, which saw the wings perched above – and separate from – the fuselage. It had been in storage for 85 years, and is described as a virtual time capsule, offering museum visitors a unique opportunity.

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The Baron’s Last Flight exhibit

Carrying similar weight to this historic aircraft is The Baron's Last Flight, a display which depicts the death of the notorious flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, best known as The Red Baron. He was the highest scoring ace of WWI.

The majority of his 80 victories were achieved while flying a red Alabatross D.III bi-plane. He went on to fly in several Fokker triplanes. The display freezes in time a pivotal moment on 21 April, 1918, when the Baron, flying his distinctive scarlet plane, was mortally wounded by ground fire while pursuing – and in turn being pursued by – a Sopwith Camel.

The museum reconstructs the moment after von Richthofen's crashed, when Australian troops ransacked the plane as he lies dead beside it. In a nearby room a collection of The Red Baron's own war memorabilia adds gravitas to this remarkable exhibit.

Manfred von Richthofen's Fokker Dr.I Dreidekker triplane (Dr J) is one of several carefully built reproduction Jasta 11s in Omaka's collection. No originals exist, since the last was destroyed during WWII when the Berlin Museum, where it was housed, was bombed by the RAF.

Grid’s Great Escape

One of the most intriguing exhibits is Grid's Great Escape, which depicts the death-defying heroism of New Zealand's top-scoring flying ace, Keith Logan Caldwell – better known by his nickname, Grid. Caldwell scored 25 victories against the enemy.

He was initially refused a place in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces departing for Gallipoli. Undeterred, he promptly enrolled, at his own expense, for flying lessons and graduated from the inaugural class of the New Zealand Flying School in December 1915.
The museum records the aftermath of a mid-air collision when Caldwell regained control of his aircraft by standing on the wing and nursed it to the ground, jumping clear just before the plane crashed.

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Nieuport 27 and Siemens Shukert D.JV

The detail in each display is incredible. This makes it hard to elevate one above the other – yet museum staff say the Nieuport 27 and Siemens Shukert D.JV exhibit is easily the most photographed.

It depicts the warm greetings exchanged between the pilot of a Nieuport 27 which has crashed into a towering tree, and another who has landed nearby on the snow-covered ground. A crow silently observing them from its lofty perch provides an ominous juxtaposition to their joy.

For the rest of the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre’s exhibits, I'll let the accompanying images (above) give you a taste of the marvels within.

Classic Fighters Omaka 2015

Put aside Easter Weekend, 2015 for the return of Classic Fighters Omaka to the skies over Blenheim.

The theme for 2015 is Anzac Pioneers, which will explore the fraternal relationship between New Zealand and Australia which was born out of conflict. Music, wine and food will also form part of the entertainment during the three days of the show, which kicks off on Good Friday at Omaka aerodrome.

The weekend will also mark the grand opening of the recently-constructed Omaka branch line – New Zealand's only two-foot gauge railway line. Tourist packages incorporating the rail trip, riverboat cruises, visits to Omaka Aviation Centre and wineries will soon be available.

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