An Auckland aerial adventurer is planning a Pacific island-hopping trip to the United States in a classic plane similar to the one in which Amelia Earhart disappeared.
Rob Mackley, who holds a private pilot licence and co-owns a business that distributes electronic components, completed the 27-day London to Sydney air race in 2001 in a single-engine Mooney plane. Now he owns a twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10A, an airliner designed in the 1930s.
Earhart, a pioneering American flyer, and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared during their round-the-world flight in July 1937 in an Electra 10E. They had left Papua New Guinea and failed to arrive at Howland Island, a tiny, isolated strip of land in the central Pacific Ocean just north of the equator.
Mackley expects the marathon restoration of his classic plane at Ardmore in South Auckland will be complete by early next year. With a co-pilot, he plans to fly the Electra to the annual airshow at Oshkosh, Wisconsin in July next year.
The plans are still forming but he expects to make refuelling stops in Tonga or Samoa, Kiribati, Honolulu and California.
The Electra's usual fuel tanks aren't big enough, especially for the longest leg of about 14.5 hours from Hawaii to California, so the fuselage will be fitted with a "giant bladder" to carry extra aviation gas to spin the two radial piston engines.
Mackley loves his plane.
"It's a beautiful looking thing," he says, "art deco through and through. It's like a mirror, a thing of huge beauty. It was the first twin built by Lockheed."
It was also the American company's first metal-skin plane and, in its more than 20-year restoration project, Mackley's Electra has had many of the panels replaced. Its Pratt and Whitney Wasp Junior engines, too, are virtually new, following international searches for crankshafts and many other spare parts and a rebuild in Palmerston North.
Mackley's late father Bill was an Electra pilot for the National Airways Corporation and earlier, as a teenager, saw the mangled, burnt remains of New Zealand's first fatal Electra crash at Mangere, Auckland in 1938. Rob has a piece of metal with a Lockheed logo from one of the tails of that plane.
His Electra began its working life in 1941 for a Chilean airline. In 1959 it was sold and later went to the Alaska.
In the mid-60s it was impounded by an Alaskan state authority over unpaid bills and given to a transport museum. In the 1980s it was offered for use in an Amelia Earhart reinactment project, but the deal never came off. It later went to another Alaskan museum and, to help offset losses on an airshow, it was put up for tender. Mackley won, with an undisclosed price.
It is one of 14 complete and two incomplete twin-engined Electras remaining worldwide. One whole plane, and parts of another, are at the Motat museum in Auckland. It is understood only two - in Canada and the Czech Republic - are airworthy. Mackley's will be a third.
He previously owned a DC-3, but considered it too big for one person. He couldn't afford to buy a large enough hangar and having to leave it outside in the weather meant it would deteriorate too fast. The Electra has a shorter wingspan.
Asked about major hurdles in the restoration, Mackley said there was none, "other than financial - it's just a big hole for money".