Back O’ The Shed: Jim re­turns to Wi­gram Air Force base and re­calls what could have been

The Shed - - Contents - By Jim Hop­kins

No ques­tion, it was déja view. The mo­ment I saw the build­ing I knew that I’d been there be­fore, and that rec­ol­lec­tion trig­gered a rush of other mem­o­ries, most mar­vel­lous, some bit­ter­sweet.

As the build­ing was the old of­fi­cer’s mess at Wi­gram, where I’d been the af­ter-din­ner speaker one anx­ious evening, and Wi­gram was my first field of dreams, back in the days of 3s 9d Air­fix mod­els and vi­sions of Vam­pires — de Hav­il­land Vam­pires, you un­der­stand, the kind the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) flew.

And since lit­tle Jim, fighter pi­lot supreme (in the cock­pit of his imag­i­na­tion), wanted to fly them too, he got the Brasso, pol­ished the but­tons, pressed the sky blue tu­nic, and turned up at No. 9 han­gar Wi­gram ev­ery Wed­nes­day to pa­rade as a proud mem­ber of No. 17 Squadron, Air Train­ing Corps (ATC).

Wi­gram was still an air­base then, hangars full of air­craft — Mus­tangs, Devons, and a host of Har­vards, lined up in front of the con­trol tower, canopies open, flu­oro-tails red, await­ing the next tranche of trainees.

Which would soon in­clude me. That was cer­tain. I was go­ing to be a fighter pi­lot; loop­ing, div­ing, dog­fight­ing, flash­ing sil­ver through the sky. That’s why I’d joined the ATC and en­dured all the ‘ ten-shun­ning’, quick march­ing, and square bash­ing, our foot­steps echo­ing off the walls in the cav­ernous dim of the empty han­gar.

Then, one chill, mid-win­ter night, we got drilled and grilled by a par­tic­u­larly cur­mud­geonly flight sergeant. Maybe he’d had a bad day; maybe he was a bad per­son; maybe he just had a tough way of say­ing true things. What­ever the rea­son, he minced no words as he strode along, ques­tion­ing each cadet in turn. “Why are you here?” he bel­lowed. “I want to fly Vam­pires, Sir!” I boldly replied.

“Vam­pires?” he snorted. “With glasses like that? Milk-bot­tle bot­toms? You’re dream­ing!”

So the air force lost its best Big­gles ever and I found other things to do on Wed­nes­days. Yet I’ve re­mained con­nected with Wi­gram through the years. I’ve flown glid­ers there; taken young son Tom up in the Catalina Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety’s PBY5A, each of us peer­ing ex­cit­edly out of the mas­sive ob­ser­va­tion blis­ters at the rear of the fuse­lage, try­ing to spot our house; I’ve been a pas­sen­ger in a Con­vair 444 and a DC-3, each head­ing through the alps to West­port (on sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions, of course); and, one Easter, had an ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic flight from Wi­gram to the Omaka air show (and back) in ZK AKY, the Croy­don Avi­a­tion Trust’s won­der­ful ex–Na­tional Air­ways Cor­po­ra­tion (NAC) Do­minie bi­plane. I re­mem­ber our pi­lot, Ryan Southam, cir­cling low so we could see the dol­phins off Kaik­oura and feel­ing sorry for ev­ery­one who wasn’t on that plane that day.

Back on the ground, be­fore Wi­gram closed, a group of Sky­hawk jocks on an in­struc­tor’s course asked me to make a (pretty crazy) film, which they showed at their (pretty crazy) fi­nal din­ner. That led to an in­vi­ta­tion to speak at the mess at Ohakea — and my sec­ond great RNZAF dis­ap­point­ment.

“What would your fee be?” an in­struc­tor asked.

“Fee?” I said, sens­ing a unique op­por­tu­nity. “Ummm, err … how about a flight in a Sky­hawk?”

Well, the deal was seem­ingly done, the speech duly de­liv­ered and, next morn­ing, Big­gles’ juices flow­ing, I po­litely in­quired what prepa­ra­tion was needed for my A- 4 flight. There were em­bar­rassed looks and shuf­fled feet.

“Oh, we thought you were jok­ing. We’re not al­lowed to take civil­ians up for joy rides.” But they did let me sit in the Sky­hawk’s tiny cock­pit and ex­plained that I was quite lucky not to be fly­ing be­cause, if I’d had to eject, I’d have prob­a­bly had my kneecaps ripped off by the con­trol panel on the way out. That had hap­pened, they said, to tall peo­ple.

It all came roar­ing back, faster than the speed of sound, when I saw that im­pos­ing 1938 build­ing once again. They do say your life flashes be­fore your eyes when you’re check­ing out. But mine flashed when I was check­ing in. You see, Wi­gram’s old of­fi­cer’s mess isn’t a mess any more. It’s an Airbnb place, hous­ing tourists, not re­cruits, sin­gle rooms just $25 a night — no en suite or telly, mind, but who gives a toss when just be­ing there brings back to life some of the best times ever, free of charge?

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