10.30am - By IAN STUART



The air force's fleet of mothballed Skyhawk attack fighter bombers have been sold to a private American company.



Advanced Training Systems International Limited confirmed today it was in the final throes of a deal which will see the 17 New Zealand Skyhawks join its existing fleet of 12 Skyhawks at the Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona.



The company refused to discuss how much it was paying for the aircraft.

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ATSI is a private company which offers military flight training to the American and other air forces.



The deal could include some New Zealand pilots and engineers although the aircraft would continue to be maintained in New Zealand at Air New Zealand subsidiary, Safe Air in Blenheim which has a long history of Skyhawk maintenance.



ATSI chairman, former US Navy fighter pilot, Larry "Hoss" Pearson, told NZPA today his company was negotiating with the Royal Australian Navy for six of the Skyhawks to return to the Nowra naval base near Sydney and resume training with Australian warships.



Before they were mothballed in December, 2001, the air force's No 2 Squadron had six Skyhawks in Nowra where they were considered ideal aircraft to train with the Australian navy because they were small, fast, manoeuvrable and very difficult for a warship's defensive systems to detect.



They also trained in air to air combat with the Royal Australian Air Force.



The Nowra deal with New Zealand was believed to have cost the Australian navy $10m a year.



Mr Pearson said the Skyhawk sale was all but complete although "some issues" with the United States State Department had yet to be worked out.



He denied a rumour circulating among New Zealand aviation circles that one of those issues was the State Department's anger at comments by Prime Minister Helen Clark over the American-led invasion of Iraq.



Because of the avionics and weapons systems in the Skyhawks the State Department must approve the sale.



Mr Pearson said he was "very confident" of the sale going through.



The Skyhawks would be dismantled and packed into containers for shipping back to America, he said.



Mr Pearson said Nowra was "a real possibility. We are in discussions with them".



He said some of the Skyhawks needed work but they were generally in very good condition.



"They have been very well maintained, very well kept. The New Zealand air force and Safe Air have done an excellent job of maintaining these airplanes."



Mr Pearson said ATSI engineers had thoroughly inspected the aircraft and their pilots had flown them and they were "very happy" with the condition of the Skyhawks.



He said one of the attractions of the Skyhawks was that they were fitted with identical systems to F16 fighters which were flown extensively by the United States Air Force and many other air forces.



In 2000 former politician Derek Quigley said the Skyhawk fleet and spares had a market value of about $120m although the New Zealand Ministry of Defence later said $85m would be a good price.



Mr Pearson said he was not at liberty to discuss the cost of buying the aircraft.



However, he said ATSI was very happy it was getting good value for its money.



"We are very happy with the deal we have negotiated. Both sides are happy."



He said it was now only a question of completing the final details of the sale and no one else was in the running.



The deal included all 17 Skyhawks and a large number of spares.



Mr Pearson said it was too soon to say how many New Zealand pilots and engineers were likely to be employed by ATSI.



"Some of the (maintenance) work will stay in New Zealand with Safe Air."



New Zealand originally had 24 Skyhawks after buying 14 brand new in 1970 and 10 second hand in 1984 from the Australian navy. Seven Skyhawks have been destroyed in crashes.



Mr Pearson said Skyhawks were still being flown by several countries, including Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and Singapore.



- NZPA