The Government has bought two Boeing 757 jet planes to replace the Defence Force's ageing VIP aircraft which had a series of embarrassing breakdowns last year.

Defence Minister Mark Burton said the 10-year-old sister 757s, bought from Dutch airline Transavia, would be modified to carry cargo and passengers.

But the purchase price and modifications were expected to come within the set budget of between $100 million and $200 million.

Alterations to the aircraft would include strengthening the floor, adding air stairs, auxiliary fuel tanks and a freight door in the main cabin.

Communication and navigational equipment on board the 757s would also be upgraded.

The new planes will take over from the unreliable Boeing 727s, which were used for VIP transport, peace-keeping operations, emergency medical evacuations, disaster and humanitarian relief and military exercises.

Last September, the Defence Force revealed that one of the 35-year-old 727s had been delayed five times on one mission by technical faults and had faced air space restrictions over Europe because of its obsolete navigation and communication systems.

One of the aircraft also broke down on the way to commemorations of the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt last year. The plane was stranded overnight in Brisbane when an engine developed an oil leak.

On board were four war veterans, all in their 80s, and military personnel including Army chief Major-General Jerry Mataparae and his wife.

Mr Burton said the 757s would fly further, carry more and were more reliable than the aircraft they were replacing.

The first of the new aircraft would arrive in the middle of next month and the second in June.

With a range of 7200km, the 757-200 will easily be able to fly the 5141km from Auckland to Darwin in one hop, whereas the 727s had to refuel at Brisbane.

The 757 will be able to reach Darwin from Ohakea, seat nearly 200 passengers and carry twice as much baggage as its predecessor.

The 32-year-old 727s will be sold.

National's defence spokesman, Simon Power, said the Government's decision to buy new aircraft for the Defence Force was welcome.

But he was concerned that other, more important, procurements had not been given a higher priority.

Air Force personnel would take part in Operation Enduring Freedom in the Middle East in a substandard Orion, while VIPs would travel in comfort in new jets.

"It's all a question of priorities, really - a nice, comfortable trip for the Prime Minister or an effective contribution to the protection of New Zealand's strategic interests."

Herald Feature: Defence

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