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