You might remember the story last month about my neighbour spotting some rubbish lying in a scrubby corner of his farm, just behind our home on the outskirts of Fairlie in South Canterbury. It turned out to be the cockpit of a real-deal 1944 World War II P40 Curtiss Kittyhawk fighter plane. If you didn’t believe me then, I don’t blame you a bit — I found it hard to believe myself. But, I promise, this isn’t April Fool’s Day come early.
Finding out how a vintage World War II fighter plane got to be in Fairlie, a town which doesn’t even have an airport, wasn’t easy. Ashley Biggs — pretty damn thrilled about what he’d discovered as you’d imagine — was busting to find out how the old aircraft got to be on his farm, which is known around these parts as Allandale Station. The Biggs family have been on Allandale for about 25 years, and they didn’t know anything about it before discovering the cockpit sections lying in a paddock in June. So, Ash started systematically tracking back previous property owners of all of the nearby houses and farms, and the descendants of the previous owners, hoping that he’d find someone with memory long enough to recall something about the old aeroplane. That’s quite a search when you consider this could be going back 50 or 60 years, depending, of course, on when the P40 arrived. Each phone call and visit continued to draw a blank until Ash tracked down an elderly lady thought to be the ex-sister-in-law of a chap who lived in the old house in the gully behind us on the highway that connects Fairlie and Geraldine, back in the 1950s. She was still living in Fairlie, and yes, she was able to confirm that her ex- brother-in-law, David Patton, lived in that house during the 1950s. “Is he still alive?” Ash asked. “Don’t know, dear. If he is, he’ll be in his mid 90s,” she said, then added that she might have an address for him somewhere, “although it will be 20 or 30 years old by now”. Expecting another dead end, if you’ll excuse the pun (“I didn’t think the old bloke would still be alive,” Ash said afterwards), Ash found a phone number for the address, and, in July of this year, he made the call. An old chap answered. Yes, it was Mr Patton. Yes, he had lived in the old house on the Fairlie-Geraldine Highway about 60 years ago. And yes … yes! He did have an old aeroplane there once upon a time. Jackpot! Ash said it took a little while for David Patton to get his head back into the subject of the telephone conversation. After all, it had been 60 years and more since the details were fresh, but, after chatting for a bit, it all came back to him. As old Mr Patton spoke, he did so with great clarity and excellent detail, and Ash was absorbed listening to the many answers to his many questions. Meanwhile, aviation historian Russell Brodie, armed with the airframe number and a network of contacts in the US, had established the early wartime history of the P40. This, together with old David Patton’s agile memory, connected most of the dots in the back-story of this incredibly rare World War II relic, lost to the world for the past 64 years. Russell Brodie’s research showed that during World War II, the No. 19 squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) was equipped with P40 Curtiss Kittyhawks, which were flown in the Pacific theatre, including Guadalcanal and Bougainville, where they flew patrol and ground-attack missions against Japanese forces. The P40 found on Ash’s farm — marked as ‘NZ3240’ — was built in the RNZAF workshops in Auckland’s Hobsonville RNZAF base, assembled in January 1944 from a kitset sent by the United States Army Air Forces. Before it got its chance to be deployed in anger, however, NZ3240 was damaged during an operational training flight from Ardmore, just two months after its completion on 10 March 1944. RNZAF records showed that the aircraft was repaired, and then converted to an ‘instructional airframe’, and remained based at Ardmore Airport. The only gap in the story yet to be filled in (if, in fact, it ever gets filled in) fits in about here. Somehow, the P40 got to Wigram airport, in Christchurch, but it’s not known whether it was flown or transported there, or why it was even sent to Wigram, particularly given that World War II was still in progress. The experts’ best guess, based on the lack of operational records, is that NZ3240 was no longer airworthy, perhaps as a result of that crash damage just after it was built. So, back to what we do know: The war ended in 1945, and, at some point in time during the late 1940s or early 1950s, as was common for fighter and bomber aircraft post-war, the Allison engine was removed and kept in the RNZAF spares inventory, and then the engineless P40 Curtiss stood forlornly and valueless in the shadows of one of Wigram’s aircraft hangers as the sun set on the useful life of a once proud fighter aircraft. And it’s at this point, in 1953, that David Patton, agricultural contractor from the township of Fairlie in South Canterbury, provides the next chapter — which I’ll tell you about next month — in this scarcely believable story of P40 Curtiss Kittyhawk NZ3240.