A 'priceless' gem of aviation military history is set to take pride of place at the Classic Flyers Museum after more than a decade in storage.
Five ex-British Royal Air Force HC.2 Westland Wessex helicopters which had been stored in a warehouse in Taranaki for the past 14 years were delivered to the Classic Flyers base in Mount Maunganui this week.
Three flown by the RAF 84 Squadron mainly during search and rescue operations arrived on Wednesday, and the other two, configured as troop carriers, were delivered yesterday.
Getting them to Tauranga was a mammoth task and was made possible thanks to a joint-venture operation between Classic Flyers and New Plymouth-based trucking firm TIL.
The UK-built Wessex was first used by the British Royal Navy in 1961, and the Royal Air Force began using them in 1962 for air-sea and mountain rescue operations.
Classic Flyers volunteers Wally Gee and Geoff Tansley were in their element as they showed off three of the Wessex which had been bought from a private Taranaki owner.
The former owner brought eight Wessex into the country, but after one was lost in a tragic accident the rest were grounded and remained in storage, Tansley said.
It was believed the two other Wessex HC.2 were still somewhere in New Zealand.
The Wessex was the first sizeable mass-produced helicopter designed around the use of Gnome turbine-powered engines, and it was believed fewer than 400 were ever built.
The Royal Australian Navy also used Wessex helicopters, and the British Royal Navy used them during the 1982 Falklands conflict.
Gee, a former commercial pilot, said the intention was to sell four of the Wessex HC.2 and keep the fifth and put it on static display in the Classic Flyers Museum.
"As volunteers and aviation buffs it's pretty cool to be able to get this close to these unique helicopters which played such a key life-saving role in military history.
"The helicopters were pretty much all intake, but after years in storage they need a major clean both inside and out," he said.
Tansley, an ex-Royal NZ Air Force pilot, said the initial thought was to water blast the 3.76-tonne beasts to remove years of grime and bird droppings, but the idea was soon abandoned in favour of truck-wash.
"Once we have cleaned them they will look like a million dollars," Gee said, with a massive grin on his face.
Tansley said the Wessex also had "royal connections" as Prince William flew a Wessex during his military service, and according to Wikipedia, Prince Charles and his father Prince Philip were trained Wessex pilots.
Reluctant to talk dollars, Gee said it was hoped Classic Flyers could get top dollar from the sale of four of the Wessex being advertised on TradeMe to cover the transport costs.
It was also hoped the fifth would be ready for display within six weeks.
"Word is already getting around in the aviation community that we have five in Tauranga and interest is definitely growing," Gee said.
Tansley said given the status of these helicopters on the world stage; it was a "privilege" to be able to help preserve these priceless aircraft for future generations' benefit.
Having one shortly on display in Tauranga was a "real coup", and he encouraged as many people as possible to come and see an "amazing piece" of aviation history.