KNIGHTSOF the SKIES
The Ashburton Aviationmuseum houses a trove of interesting aircraft, including the Southerndc3 that recently flew the Crusaders to the North Island. NICK ASHLEY flies in for a visit from Christchurch in a Cessna 150 light aircraft.
With no low-level clouds in sight and a moderate but smooth westerly wind aloft, it was perfect flying weather. The flight to Ashburton from Christchurch was routine, with the skies empty and the relentlessly straight State Highway 1 providing the perfect landmark to follow.
Ashburton airfield is a complex of four runways about four kilometres east of the town on Seafield Rd, and is clearly signposted from the highway for road traffic.
The Ashburton Aviation Museum is at the eastern end of the airport, with plenty of parking available, no matter how you get there.
The museum began in 1978 with the purchase of a North American Harvard from the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
During World War II, the RNZAF operated Harvards as trainers, with the museum example serving for two decades from 1942 to 1962. Harvards are highly recognisable by their ‘‘glasshouse’’ windshields, and the few still flying around New Zealand can be recognised by the howling sound made by their propeller tips which can exceed the speed of sound.
Another museum aircraft, a de Havilland Vampire that flew for just a few hours in RNZAF service, was rescued from life as a children’s playground at the Cave Tavern and expertly restored over several years.
Vampires carried the RNZAF into the jet age, being used from 1951 to 1972, when they were replaced by BAC Strikemasters. Powered by a single Goblin turbojet, the Vampire reached a top speed of about 880kmh, which while record-breaking at the time, can now be frequently exceeded by larger commercial airliners.
One of the more unusual displays is a ‘‘gift’’ from the Soviet Union: a piece of space-probe Cosmos 482 which crashed nearby.
After a failed launch sequence, the probe broke up with several pieces falling in fields near Ashburton. ‘‘Spaceball number 1’’ is a roughly basketball-size sphere of welded metal that was discovered about 8km south of Ashburton on April 3, 1972.
Sharing a hangar with many aircraft that will never take to the skies again is the Southern DC3, an airliner built in the 1940s that is frequently used for scenic flights over Christchurch.
This month the old workhorse was put to work flying stranded passengers between Christchurch and Wellington after domestic flights were cancelled as the volcanic ash cloud from Chile dropped even lower. Even the Crusaders boarded this piece of flying history to get to Wellington for their clash with the Hurricanes on June 18.
Anyone with an interest in aviation could spend several hours at this great museum, but as it was approaching closing time I decided to have a final look around the hangar and make my way back past a retired Fokker Friendship to the much smaller aircraft waiting for me near the runway.
A few minutes later, I was on my way back to Christchurch, and looking out to the west I could see a dirty tint in the sky that was an indication of the chaos to come for both airlines and travellers.
However, my flight ended smoothly, and whether you fly or drive, the trip to the Ashburton Aviation Museum makes a great escape from Christchurch. Just make sure you avoid falling spacecraft!
Ashburton Aviation Museum: Opening hours, Wednesday and Saturday, 1pm to 3pm, and Sunday 9am to 4pm; entry $5.
Museum starter: The purchase of a North American Harvard launched the Ashburton AviationMuseum in 1978.
Workhorse: This Southern DC3 recently flew stranded passengers to the North Island.
Mixed background: Ade Havilland Vampire that was rescued from a life as a children’s playground at the Cave Tavern.