If the Royal New Zealand Air Force is mortally embarrassed by the breakdown of its Boeing 757 carrying the Prime Minister and a trade mission to India, it deserves to be.

The public who pay the bills to maintain a modest, but hopefully competent, Air Force have a right to ask what is going on at Whenuapai if a mission such as this one cannot be executed successfully?

The force is hardly laden with duties these days. It's military role is largely limited to maritime surveillance and troop transport. When its two jet airliners are not required to fly the SAS or other Army contingents to foreign trouble spots they serve as the country's VIP aircraft, a not unusual task for air forces in other countries. It is a task they could be expected to approach with a good deal of pride and careful preparation since it is liable to attract more public attention than any of their routine operations.

So how did it happen that this Boeing bound for India with fairly important passengers aboard got no further than Townsville? By the time the second Boeing could be sent to pick up the travelling party yesterday, they had missed their first day of appointments in Mumbai, which included a scheduled event to showcase New Zealand's technology sector. Instead, those attending from Indian technology companies would have learned the New Zealanders could not make it because their Prime Minister's plane broke down.


The Prime Minister ought to have been furious, as should the business representatives who will be travelling at some cost to their companies for the connections that a diplomatic mission at this level can enable them to make. It seems the first day in India was to be the most business-focused on the itinerary. But John Key has been typically phlegmatic about the mishap, calling it "sub-optimal" and the business delegates are said to have remained in good spirits during the delay.

Doubtless the crew were doing their best, the party had sympathy for them and it is not in the Kiwi character to make a fuss in any case. But sometimes we are tolerant to a fault.

We are too quick to absolve public servants of any blame if it is possible to hold a politician to account. Opposition parties yesterday were quick to question the age of the VIP planes and whether Key should be using them anyway. Among the public, some will be quick to say it serves him right for keeping the Defence Force on short rations.

None of these excuses will do. In fact, they serve only to take to take the pressure off the RNZAF and its maintenance performance, and make it more likely nothing will be learned from this failure.

The Boeing were in commercial service for 10 years before they were bought for the Air Force in 2003. They have passed the 757s life expectancy of 20 years but they were upgraded substantially in 2008-09 and with good maintenance they are expected to last beyond 2020.

The RNZAF is proud that its engineers have kept Hercules flying for 50 years. Just as it has received credit for that performance, it deserves blame for this one. It was abysmal.