© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2024

Warbirds take a Canterbury pit stop

Tobias Macintosh

For the first time in six years, Warbirds over Wanaka took flight in front of over 50,000 fans last week, showcasing some of the world's finest military aircraft in a one of a kind performance.

Chris Tennent-Brown is part of the Harvard crew and shares a snippet of his story. Credit: TOBIAS MACINTOSH/NZBS

The event, however, couldn’t take place without the famous North American Harvard planes, the Soviet Union Yak-52s, and their accompanying pilots having a layover at the local Ashburton airstrip.

Fourteen Yak-52s and three Harvards occupied the rural runway from Tuesday through til Thursday, giving locals the chance to come out and get right up and personal with some unique pieces of history. 

Hosted by the Ashburton Aviation Pioneers group, people had the opportunity to speak with some of the pilots, explore the aviation museum and even watch the planes in action as they prepared for the weekend. 

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The Warbirds were on display for everyone throughout the week. TOBIAS MACINTOSH/NZBS

Based out of Auckland and New Plymouth, the Roaring Forties aerobatic display team, who operate the Harvards, have been regular performers in the show since 1988. They said they loved being able to engage with such a passionate local community.

Chris Tennent-Brown, who works for the bank by day and is part of the Harvard crew at every other opportunity, said they get pretty excited to get out there, but it comes with a lot of planning, mapping and checking of forecasts, which is rewarded with a whole heap of satisfaction.

The Harvards were a US Air Force trainer aircraft first created in 1935 and used to train pilots from the US, British and Commonwealth militaries during World War II. The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) had 202 Harvards in the sky from 1941, training Kiwi pilots right up until the retirement of the planes in 1977.

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Harvard 52 viewed from the tail TOBIAS MACINTOSH/NZBS

With the aircraft slowly getting packed up for a flight over the Southern Alps to their final destination, Tennent-Brown said people are finally starting to appreciate how cool the aircraft are. The planes have been kept in complete original condition, including all the control panels from inside the cockpit.

“They are still able to be maintained and kept airworthy as there are a bunch of people who enjoy being able to do that.”

A spokesperson for the Aviation Pioneers Group said this was such a cool experience for everyone to learn about a seemingly forgotten part of the New Zealand war story.

The planes took off from Ashburton on Friday morning to join a lineup including MK Spitfires, the De Havilland Mosquito and the well-known F-16s giving Kiwis a real-life ‘Top Gun’ experience.