I visited the Air Force Museum of New Zealand in Christchurch at the end of February 2020, shortly before I returned to Canada. It is located on the former Wigram Air Base, the first in New Zealand.
I first visited this museum when I was 12 or 13, and I remember it very differently- though 20 years will do that. The museum is mostly contained in a single large building, and is a museum to the currently Royal New Zealand Air Force, its predecessor organizations and the New Zealand squadrons which flew as part of the Royal Air Force.
As you walk in, the first thing that you see is the information desk, the shop, and the museum’s cafe. To the left is one of the large display halls. Unfortunately, when I visited in March this hall had been hired for a private function so I was unable to enter, but I was able to take photos from the rope. What you see in this photo is a Bell Sioux helicopter, which the RNZAF flew for more than 40 years, from 1968 to 2009. Beyond the helicopter is a Bristol Freighter aircraft, which the RNZAF flew from the late 1940s to the 1970s. I love this image because it shows both the US and UK influences on the RNZAF after the Second World War.
The first main section of the museum that you get to is a series of display cases that show a vast array of RNZAF uniforms, weapons, and other items, in a fairly efficient array to provide context for the RNZAF’s history. For example, these items were about New Zealanders in the First World War, with examples of German aircraft debris and early bombs. Many of these displays included examples of weaponry and personal items.
I rather enjoyed this display, which showed the connections between the RNZAF and Canada through the British Commonwealt Air Training Plan from the Second World War. There is a good wealth of material here including from more recent decades, including peacekeeping duties in SE Asia. This section also had featured connections to individuals as well as items, a trend would remain true in the next section as well.
A main display hall is the next section, containing a large number of aircraft and aircraft parts from the RNZAF’s history. They also hae a number of wrecked parts- engines from Spitfire crashes, and most of them are associated with individual aircraft, and with individuals. It’s nice to get a story associated with the item, rather than just have it represent a collection. I was struck by just how cramped the cockpit of the De Havilland Vampire/Venom was- although I will spare you the photos of myself in it.
Along one wall is a display/gallery which provides some kind of interactive experience going into the personal experiences of New Zealand pilot POWs during the Second World War,taking visitors step by step from being shot down, to possibly escaping to Sweden or some other way of getting back to the UK. It is notable that they have a sign where they discuss the absence of Pacific War POW stories, which were much different, and often much worse. One fascinating thing for me in this section were WW2-era books, with notations in them on how much paper had been saved by, for example, not wasting space between chapters.
We were also luckily able to see the Reserve Collection, at the rear of the closed-off hall. This section finally had the “Naval” component of the museum, with a Westland Wasp helicopter, which the RNZN flew until very recently. It also has a large number of engines and other aircraft, such as A-4s, a DeHavilland Devon, and a large number of Gypsy engines (from various versions). They also have an SH-2 Seasprite, of an earlier version (Which replaced the Wasp in service). I was very much surprised by the number of engines, as well as other “Detritus” (such as a sky off a C-130, and various other objects.
Luckily, we were able to sign up for the behind-the-scenes tour, which is how we got to see the Reserve collection area. Further, we were also taken into the working area, where museum volunteers rebuild other aircraft. When we visited, they were in the process of rebuilding a Vickers Vildebeest, which was flown by the RNZAF at the beginning of the Second World War, and of which none remain. They have to rebuild this aircraft with very minimal of the original components- as you can see from this photo, they are using a lot of new material- made without plans, unfortunately.
In this photo above, you can see just how much of the forward fuselage is from new material- and to the right extremity, what material remains from the original aircraft. You can follow along with the progress of this project on the museum’s website. They have some really excellent photos, including of preserved material from the wing sections that was not on display when we had our tour in February.
I really enjoyed visiting this museum- it’s certainly well worth a few hours time when you’re in Christchurch.