The Warbirds Over Wanaka air show, in Wanaka, New Zealand will be rumbling to life this Easter weekend, from the 18th through 20th of April. The biennial event is famous the world over for its gathering of rare warbirds, and fabulous set-piece events set against the stunning backdrop of some of New Zealand’s finest mountain scenery. Amongst the Spitfires, Kittyhawks and Mustangs that will surely be attending this year’s air show will be the familiar, and yet increasingly rare site of a Douglas C-47B Dakota. This particular Dakota is even more special though, as it is the last of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s WWII fleet still flying and operating as a commercial aircraft. And what’s more, it will be selling rides to enthusiasts over the air show days.
Currently registered as ZK-AWP, the Dakota served in the RNZAF as NZ3543. She rolled off Douglas Aircraft’s Oklahoma City production line in April, 1945, and made her way to Hamilton, New Zealand. She joined 41 Squadron RNZAF that May, and served out the remainder of WWII in the Pacific Theatre dropping supplies where they were needed. Immediately following the war, NZ3543 helped ferry military personnel returning home to New Zealand.
Her military service ended in 1952, but the nascent New Zealand National Airways Corporation soon acquired her for passenger duties, which began on April 2nd, 1953. Passing through a couple of other owners in the South Pacific, over the next few years, the venerable Dak returned to New Zealand in 1973 to join Souther Air Super Ltd. The company converted her into an agricultural sprayer, or “top-dresser” as that function is known in New Zealand. She racked up nearly seven thousand hours in this arduous business over the next decade, before conversion to freighter configuration in the mid-80s for Classic Air Services, and later with Fieldair Freight.
By 2000, ZK-AWP had amassed over 46,000 flight hours, a staggering number for almost any airframe, but not so unusual for the immensely strong Douglas transport. Pionair Adventures was her new owner by this time, and they flew her on aerial passenger tours around New Zealand, and Australia. Disaster struck in June, 2002 when she skidded off the snow-laden runway at Mount Cook during her takeoff run, receiving substantial damage. A crew from Fieldair patched her up for the ferry flight back to Palmerston North for more thorough repairs, from which she emerged newly renamed as “Lucille”.
The Crown Prince of Tonga chartered the Dakota, alongside her sister-ship, ZK-AMY for service in his country in June 2004. But widespread violence erupted across the island nation in 2006, with looters and anarchists running rampant pillaging and setting the towns alight. Thankfully, AWP was safely locked away in a secure hangar, but there she languished for the next three years, slowly fading into disrepair.
Thankfully, Craig Emeny’s Air Chathams bought ZK-AWP and lavished significant resources into the Dakota’s renewal. The aircraft served with their subsidiary, Chathams Pacific, for three years flying passenger flights in the Chatham Islands, a New Zealand protectorate in the South Pacific several hundred miles from the homeland. Air Chathams wound up their Chathams Pacific operations in March, 2013, and ZK-AWP made her way back to the New Zealand mainland that December. She still remains in commercial service with Air Chathams; the last of the RNZAF Dakota fleet, not to mention the last of the National Airways Corporation and Fieldair aircraft still in operation. So when you see her this Easter over Wanaka, don’t think of her as just another DC-3, but imagine her as the final Kiwi ambassador of her generation. That is something worth celebrating.
To find out more about the Warbirds Over Wanaka Air Show, or about getting a ride aboard Air Chatham’s Dakota when you visit, please go to the airshow website for regular updates.
Article based (with permission) on a Warbirds Over Wanaka press release.