Royal New Zealand Air Force
THE Royal New Zealand Air Force in its present form dates from 1 April 1937, when the Air Force Act and the Air Department Act were passed. The first created the Air Force as a separate branch of the Armed Services, and the second created a new Department of State to administer it.
The history of service aviation in New Zealand, though, goes back to the early nineteen-twenties, while the idea of an air force began before the First World War. The passing of the Air Force Act was the culmination of years of effort by a few farseeing enthusiasts, who for more than two decades fought against official and public apathy for the recognition of New Zealand's air defence needs. Looking back, their early achievements may seem slight in comparison with what came later; but they laid the foundations of a service which from 1939 to 1945 made itself a reputation second to none in the world.
One of the first New Zealanders to appreciate the possibilities of aircraft was the Hon. Henry Wigram.1 While on a visit to England in 1908 he was greatly impressed by some of the pioneer flights which were then being made, and when he returned to New Zealand he was imbued with an enthusiasm for aviation which lasted to the end of his life.
Speaking in the Legislative Council in 1909, he urged the Government to form a Flying Corps as part of the country's defence forces. As no powered aeroplane had yet flown in New Zealand and as flying was everywhere still in its infancy, the idea was revolutionary. Nevertheless, the seed took root, and in 1911 the proposal was considered by the Army. In 1912 the Officer Commanding the New Zealand Military Forces2 reported that preliminary arrangements had been made to send a number of officers and non-commissioned officers to England for training.
2 Gen Sir Alexander J. Godley, GCB, KCMG, Legion of Honour (Fr); born 4 Feb 1867; joined Royal Dublin Fusiliers 1886; served in South African War; GOC NZ Forces 1910–14; GOC 1 NZEF 1914–19; C-in-C British Army of the Rhine, 1922–24; Governor and C-in-C, Gibraltar, 1928–33; retired 1933.
Later in the same year Lieutenant Burn, NZSC,1 was sent to train as a pilot at the newly formed Central Flying School, Upavon, on the Salisbury Plain. He returned to New Zealand shortly before the beginning of the First World War.
By 1913 aviation overseas had made considerable progress, and aircraft, although still largely in the experimental stage, were considered to be sufficiently useful and reliable to have real military value. Britain, France, and Germany all started to pay increased attention to the development of their air corps.
In Britain a group of business men formed a committee known as the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, ‘to strengthen the resources of the Empire in aerial craft, in view of the great advances made in this direction by foreign powers.’ A subscription list was opened by the Evening Standard for the purchase of aircraft for the Dominions, and the first one bought was presented to the New Zealand Government.
The machine was a two-seater monoplane2 which had been designed by Bleriot for Gustav Hamel's record-breaking non-stop flight from Dover to Cologne in April 1913. It was christened ‘Britannia’ by Lady Desborough, wife of the president of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, and shipped to New Zealand where it arrived in September.
Meanwhile it had been announced that New Zealand would use the aircraft as the nucleus of an Aviation Corps. Its arrival, however, raised some problems for the Government. Lieutenant Burn was still in England, and no member of the Military Forces in New Zealand was competent either to fly it or to service it. The Government apparently was a little awed by the modern marvel which it had acquired. The Minister of Defence, Mr J. Allen, wrote to the Aviation School at Farnborough, asking what should be done with the machine and how New Zealand could make the best use of it. ‘I presume that a shed will be necessary …. would it also be necessary that before anybody mounts in the machine, they should get some experience of the air currents as you teach your men by sending them up in a balloon?’
1 Lt W. W. A. Burn, m.i.d.; born Melbourne, 17 Jul 1891; went overseas in 1915 as a member of the first Australian Squadron for flying duties with Indian Armed Units in Mesopotamia; shot down and killed, 1915.
2 Specification: ‘Bleriot Monoplane -X1–2 type; 2 seats for pilot and passenger arranged tandem fashion. The motor is the latest 80 hp Gnome Engine. The length of the machine is 28 feet and the span 30 feet. The weight about 860 lb. when empty, and it is guaranteed to fly at a speed of over 70 miles an hour in calm air.’
There were claims from various parts of the country for the location of the first aerodrome. Wigram, who continually urged the Government to develop aviation, pressed the case for putting it at Sockburn, near Christchurch. However, it was another four years before Sockburn was developed as an aerodrome.
‘Britannia’ was put on show at the Auckland Exhibition at the end of 1913, and later made several flights over the city, piloted by J. J. Hammond, of Feilding, who had learned to fly overseas. Hammond can thus be regarded as New Zealand's first official test pilot. He was also the first to be dismissed for giving unauthorised rides. While a number of official guests were waiting to be given their first flight, he preferred to take as a passenger a young lady from a visiting theatrical company. Even in those days such a practice was frowned upon, and he lost his appointment. The aircraft was then dismantled and sent to Wellington to be stored until the return of Lieutenant Burn.
When war broke out in 1914 it was still in storage, and the Officer Commanding the New Zealand Forces recommended that it be sent overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The recommendation was not acted upon, and the aircraft was returned to England for use by the Royal Flying Corps. Three years later a second aircraft, an RE8, was presented to the New Zealand Government, having been subscribed for by the people of Nottingham. This also was handed over to the RFC and saw service in France with No. 7 Squadron.
If war had not broken out in 1914 it is possible that plans for the formation of a Flying Corps in New Zealand might have gone ahead. There was a small but insistent body of public opinion, led in Parliament by Henry Wigram and outside by a growing number of flying enthusiasts, which demanded official recognition and development of aviation; but Headquarters New Zealand Military Forces, although it had taken the first step in sending Burn to England, was chary of committing itself further.
General Sir Ian Hamilton, who had visited New Zealand as Inspector-General of Overseas Forces early in 1914, had suggested waiting a bit. He pointed out that aircraft design was improving so rapidly that machines were obsolescent almost as soon as they were in use.
Towards the end of 1914 the Imperial Government definitely advised the New Zealand Government against the formation of a Flying Corps, which was quite natural as the country's only military aircraft had been sent back to England and there was only one qualified pilot in the Armed Forces. The New Zealand Government, page 4 although prepared before 1914 to experiment like other countries with aviation, now decided that the subject should be dropped until after the war, when it could be considered by experts.
In 1916 Wigram returned to the attack. He moved and carried a motion in the Legislative Council that the Government should establish a Flying School, preparatory to forming a Flying Corps. The Government, however, replied that it would not take up anything ‘not immediately conducive to the winning of the war’— a point of view which was logical enough when the essential demand was for infantry, and aviation was not yet the important factor in war which it was to become later.
Two years later, in 1918, Lieutenant-General Godley, impressed by the number of New Zealanders serving with the Royal Air Force,1 recommended the formation of a New Zealand Air Force. It is possible that this might have been done but for the difficulties of establishing the necessary administration at that time; but the Government confirmed its decision to do nothing until after the war.