WALKING through the Vintage Aviator Collection, the largest collection of flying original World War I aircraft in the world and based at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton, I suddenly became aware of how brave those young pilots were. Not only were the planes they flew so fragile - many made out of Irish linen, wood and canvas - but these men also lacked some of the basics modern-day travellers take for granted.
The WWI pilots, many with limited flying hours behind them, couldn't hear well; couldn't see well and were dealing with freezing temperatures at altitude. At times of air combat they would have been disorientated, often struggling to identify their target and dealing with their own insecurities of death - trying to avoid horrific injures and terrible burns.
"Even though air combat in WWI has been depicted in movies or in books at times as glamorous, it was a battle for survival ... it would have been brutal," says The Vintage Aviator Collection manager Sara Randle, while pointing out a Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b, one of two examples in the world unearthed in Masterton.
The FE2b is an ungainly looking aircraft, with forward-firing machines visible in the front cockpit. Sara explains that the pilots would have sat in front of the engine and behind and above the observer, who manned a machine-gun on a swivel mounting with 180-degree arc of fire.
There would have been no parachute, no bulletproof vest or heat-protective gear if they were fired on or if their aircraft went down.
The two FE2bs form part of The Vintage Aviator's outstanding collection of aircraft that can be viewed regularly.
There are also three British SE5A, a Sopwith Triplane, a Sopwith Camel, DH-4, the original BE 2 and German Fokker Dr.1 Triplanes to name but a few. Most are powered by original WWI aero engines and the reproduction aircraft and engines are made by specialist engineers and craftspeople in the Wellington-based workshop.
They are neatly displayed in the hangar, each with information boards outlining relevant statistics, making it interesting to digest, even for those with limited aviation knowledge.
There are also viewing platforms which allow visitors to see inside the cockpits of most display aircraft and to take photos.
This summer, the hangar is open for tours during non-flying, as it is every weekend, 10am-4pm, until April. In January much of the collection will fly at the Wings Over Wairarapa airshow (January 16-18) ... with many not seen in the skies for more than 80 years.
John Lanham, a former RNZAF strike-wing commander, says it takes specialist pilots to fly these magnificent and rare aircraft.
"Even a highly competent modern pilot would be pretty much at a loss at first, because these aircraft are so different," he says. "They have enormous character and are relatively gentle. They fly at low speeds but are highly manoeuvrable."
-The Vintage Aviator is based at Hood Aerodrome in Masterton and open weekends, 10am-4pm, from November to April. Website: www.thevintageaviator.co.nz