Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

omaka aviation heritage museum

Peter Jackson’s old war planes displayed in sets built by Weta Workshop is exactly as awesome as it sounds. I’m not even interested in aviation history and I absolutely love this museum! It’s on the outskirts of Blenheim, near Brayshaw Heritage Park. There are two parts, one dedicated to the First World War and one to the Second, which you pay for separately. If you only have time for one section, make it the Second World War, as it’s the newest and most exciting, but, of course, both are worth seeing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

So, how did a museum in Blenheim come to be in possession of such awesome displays? Well, at some point in the ’90s, the people storing their planes at Omaka decided it would be cool to turn the place into a museum, so they started fundraising, holding airshows and such like. In the early 2000s, this caught the attention of Peter Jackson, a long-time war plane enthusiast. He joined the club, needing somewhere to store his collection of WWI fighter planes, which, presumably, he’d recently purchased with the profits of his phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings films. He, too, thought a museum would be cool, so he called upon the set and prop artists of The Lord of the Rings and bid them do their thing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

The result is magical. It’s hard not to get sucked into the atmosphere. The experiences of the war pilots are brought to life in harrowing detail. I especially enjoyed – well, maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word – the scene of the Red Baron’s demise. The churned-up dirt and the expressions on the mannequins’ faces are worryingly realistic. The scene with the plane crashed into the tree, surrounded by snow, is also highly evocative.

omaka aviation heritage museumMy favourite part of the museum is the one dedicated to WWII planes, perhaps because it has even more focus on raw human experience than the WWI part. You enter the exhibition through a recreated air raid shelter, a gloomy tunnel adorned with wartime posters. The muffled sounds of planes and bombs, accompanied by the eerie whine of an air raid siren, make it wonderfully spooky. You emerge from the tunnel to be faced with a life-sized diorama of a lovely moment involving a Kiwi pilot who’s just crash-landed onto some toff’s country estate in the middle of a garden party. He’s being offered a glass of champagne.

lydia litvyakI suppose I shouldn’t give the whole thing away, but I will say there’s a quite amazingly immersive cinematic experience pertaining to the Battle of Stalingrad. You actually feel like you’re there, which is incredible, but I imagine it would give some children nightmares, and trigger distressing flashbacks for certain soldiers and refugees. It left me weirdly winded. There’s also a bit about the Nazis that has a giant swastika flag hanging above it. This, according to the old veteran guide I got chatting to, has proven a tad controversial.

The guide was lovely, but, having mistaken me for the mother of the children in another part of the exhibition with their father, went to great lengths to emphasize a part of the exhibition that might be of more interest to “womenfolk”, and seemed surprised that I was relatively knowledgeably about certain things already. (I took great relish in flaunting my knowledge after this realisation, never revealing, of course, that aviation history isn’t really my cup of tea, my knowledge having been transferred by osmosis from a lifetime of proximity to my father.) Almost annoyingly, I did find the part of the exhibition about the Russian female fighter pilots – the Night Witches – especially interesting.

The two most impressive displays, I thought, were the one focusing on the ace fighter Lydia Litvyak, known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and the one focusing on the bomber crashed into a patch of Pacific jungle. I made sure my fiancé experienced the Stalingrad section, because his grandfather, a German soldier, was actually stationed at Stalingrad, but was recalled to Germany for officer training just days before the battle began. It wasn’t until after the war that he discovered every single one of his friends who’d been at Stalingrad had died.

omaka aviation heritage museumNow Omaka is quite an expensive museum to visit – $40 if you want to go ’round all of it. The money does go towards improving the museum, however. They want to build an Art Deco bit to go in-between the First and Second World War bits, for example. You can also go for a plane ride if you want. Oh, and there are some amusing T-shirts in the gift shop that say “Old Fokker”!

omaka aviation heritage museumSo, if you love planes, or military history, or Peter Jackson, you’ll be in heaven in the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum. If you don’t, you’ll still enjoy it. Like I said before, aviation history isn’t my thing, but I’m dead keen to go back once they’ve finished the Art Deco exhibition. It’s because Peter Jackson’s displays have allowed the exhibitions to highlight the human experience surrounding the planes, not merely the technical aspects of the planes themselves. Human stories are what make history so powerful.

Classic Flyers – Somewhere to Go if You’re in the Bay of Plenty

Something you might not know about the Tauranga/Mount Maunganui area is it has a rather good aviation museum. It’s called Classic Flyers and you can find it at Tauranga Airport. Now I’m not really interested in planes, but, unfortunately for me, my dad is, which is why I found myself there a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly diverted.


I’d been to Tauranga Airport a few times, picking up my visiting grandfather and attending the Tauranga Airshow, but I’d never been to the museum. It has a surprisingly nice café that’s wonderfully decorated, and the gift shop is a haven for modelling nerds. It’s a very small museum – the size of a hangar, basically, but we managed to spend quite a bit of time there.

It cost $15 each to get in and there was a kid’s birthday party going on when we arrived. I was jealous of them climbing into the gunner tower – what is that thing? Is it called a gunner tower? I obviously wasn’t paying much attention. I was too distracted by the Star Wars music going through my head. You know, this bit:

My dad’s been to Classic Flyers heaps. He was taking flying lessons. You can do that there, and book one-of flights in classic planes. Dad learned how to fly a glider because that was cheapest. I’m sure he’d rather have flown a Spitfire. There’s a Spitfire in the museum, or at least a full-scale replica. I’m sure it’s great if you love old planes. There’s this biggish one you can go in. I hit my head.

There was an awesome temporary exhibit on about the experiences of the local ANZACS – the Australians and New Zealanders sent off to fight in World War I. 2015 is the centenary of the Gallipoli tragedy, so there’s been special emphasis put on ANZAC commemorations this year. The exhibit was beautifully done and worth the ticket price alone.

Uh, what else to say about it? Planes. If you’re travelling around New Zealand and/or looking for something to do in Tauranga/Mount Maunganui, and if you’ve got kids, or you’re especially interested in aviation history… or if you’re looking for a nice café, I suppose… drop in on Classic Flyers.


P.S. I found this in the ANZAC exhibit and simply couldn’t resist… Any Doctor Who fans in? All together now: “Are you my mummy?”

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

I have no interest in planes. How, therefore, did I find myself at the 2014 Tauranga City Airshow, ‘Classics of the Sky’? It was all for you, dear reader, and for my plane (and train)-obsessed father.

The day was set to be perfectly miserable. There wasn’t a patch of blue in the sky. It was raining when we got there, and the wind was so ferocious it was all I could do to keep my camera steady. For a while we worried we wouldn’t see the Spitfire fly at all.

skullcroppedThen something miraculous happened: the wind died down and the rain stopped. The skies didn’t clear, but despite the greyness of the light, the day turned into a very pleasant one indeed.

As I walked along the rows of old planes, taking pictures and forgetting their names as quickly as my dad informed me of them, I saw what looked like the set of M*A*S*H – war recreationists were in our midst: Americans, New Zealanders, Soviets and Germans. It was wonderfully done and they all seemed to be having a ball – especially the Soviets, for some reason.

hitlercroppedI also noticed that there were an absolute shedload of campervans around – this event was obviously extremely popular with tourists, and I could see why, for, as I have stated, I have no interest in planes, but even I was having a good time.

I couldn’t stop quoting Blackadder Goes Forth.

Because of the uncertainty of the weather, the display schedule was randomised, meaning the entire spectacle didn’t flow as well as it should have done, but this barely mattered. There were some absolutely outstanding moments, such as the police demonstration of how they use dogs to help catch criminals – the ‘criminals’ in question having ‘hijacked’ a plane – and the breathtaking show of pyrotechnics at the end.

pyrotechnicscroppedThe pyrotechnics were supposed to accompany the airshow’s main event, which I’ll tell you about in a minute, but that had come earlier because of the weather. Instead, they accompanied a just-as-fun, Top Gear-inspired race between a super-fast Audi and a beat-up old car dropped from a helicopter. The dropped car won, but the Audi had suffered a false start.

displaycroppedThere were quite a few different stalls at the show, mostly selling chips, drinks and doughnuts, but there was one that sold fossils and crystals, which seemed to me a little out of place. However, my mum and grandpa got a couple of presents for my sister, who’s into that sort of thing, but hadn’t come with us to the airshow.

My dad’s present was far greater: Les Munro, the last surviving member of the Dam Busters, signed his programme.

soldierscroppedThe best part of the day for me – and, no doubt, for the majority of the people present – was the airshow’s main event, a choreographed dogfight between ‘Roy Brown’ in a Sopwith Camel and ‘the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen’ in a Fokker Dr.I Dreidecker. (Cue the Blackadder quotes.) There were even soldiers on the ground shooting up at them. It was fantastic.

The Tauranga City Airshow happens every two years, so if you’re travelling around New Zealand in 2016, there’s a fun day out for you – even if you have no interest in planes.