Former RNZAF Skyhawks and Aermacchis, that are now repainted and flying in the United States. A Skyhawk, rear, flies with two Aermacchis. (photo : Stuff)
After a decade collecting dust, New Zealand’s mothballed combat wing has taken to the skies again – in the United States.
The air force’s fleet of Skyhawks spent more than 10 years grounded after being decommissioned.
Last year eight were donated to museums across the country, and one was sent to a museum in Australia.
The remaining eight were snapped up US company Draken International for $7.9 million, including spare parts and engines.
Draken also bought nine of New Zealand’s Aermacchi jet training aircraft, which were decommissioned in 2001 but were flown regularly to keep them operational.
A team of New Zealand experts has been working alongside Draken staff at their Florida base to prepare the aircraft for flight.
Three of them – one Skyhawk and two Aermacchis – will take part in their first official fly-by during the Sun ’n Fun Airshow at Lakeland, Florida, at an event called the Royal New Zealand Air Force Heritage Day on Thursday.
The guest of honour for the event will be Air Vice-Marshal Graham Lintott, who is currently acting as defence attache at the New Zealand embassy in Washington.
Retired Air Commodore James Barclay and Wing Commander Barry Nelson will also attend as guest speakers.
Draken chief executive Jared Isaacman, one of the few civilian-trained pilots in the US authorised to fly Skyhawks, said the first Skyhawk had its first test flight only three days ago, while the two Aermacchis flew for the first time about two weeks ago.
When the Skyhawk took to the air, there were tears in the eyes of some of the New Zealand staff, and Mr Isaacman admitted it was a bittersweet moment for many.
‘‘Most of them probably wish the airplanes were still flying in New Zealand, and I don’t blame them, but the next best thing in their mind is that they’re flying again.’’
About 200 guests had been invited to the RNZAF celebrations, and the greater airshow would attract about 100,000 people.
After this week’s celebration it was planned to have another Skyhawk and Aermacchi operational each month, and they were likely to be used for combat simulation with the US Air Force and its allies, he said.
Since New Zealand’s air combat force was disbanded in 2001, it has cost $37.4m to maintain and operate.