Saturday, March 31, 2012
Quite the show for RNZAF's 75th
Because I am anal that way, I allowed myself 3 hours for the 1 1/2-hour drive up to Ohakea. It took 3 1/2 hours because of a vehicular tailback that at one point stretched 31 kilometers from the Ohakea Air Base south and 12 kilometers north.
The last airshow I was at featured a couple of planes doing the loop-the-loop and a few more static displays. This was not that. About 70,000 people turned out for this annual event that had been souped up to mark the 75th anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
I don't think there could have been many planes left in the rest of New Zealand. Between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. alone more than 120 planes landed in what is basically a cow pasture outside Sanson.
And the aerial displays came hard and fast and noisily on top of one another. There must have been close to 300 aircraft at the show and many of them - from brand new helicopters to World War I-era biplanes - took to the skies.
The noise was deafening and the massive crowd appreciative.
But back to the earthbound traffic. Amy called me just after I'd left Wellington. I told her I had to pull over because the traffic was so bad. "What's going on?" she asked. In truth, I had no idea. But as the traffic seemed to be heading to the same place I was, it began to dawn on me: this is air show traffic, even though we were still 130 kilimeters away. By 9 a.m. the tailback was more than 30 kilomters - and not moving at all. Luckily everyone remained polite and the "Merge like a Zip" rule still applied for traffic merging in from other roads. But damn.
As I finally approached the air field it seemed as if a plane was landing every minute. Indeed, according to the Manawatu Standard, they were expecting 120 commercial, civilian, and military planes to be landing before 10 a.m. At least the same number of planes was already on the ground. Ohakea had to be the busiest air space within several thousand miles.
The control tower had to be the busiest, most frenetic, and tense place in New Zealand. Planes and aerial demonstrations seemed to be coming from everywhere simultaneously. A few times the old stomach knotted up as decidedly out-of-date planes definitely in private hands came to within what seemed like just a few feet of each other on more than one occasion.
Still, the atmosphere on the ground was relaxed. The smell of burgers and coffee was heavy in the air. By the time I left, around 1 p.m., the traffic queue was "down" to 29 kilometers and many locals had given up. Instead they set up chairs at the side of the road or took their stations atop their parked vehicles and oohed and aahed from afar. It was unlike anything I have ever seen in New Zealand, and that includes the Rugby World Cup.
My favorite, for sentimental reasons from my boyhood, was the old Spitfire. She took to the air with all the grace I remember from my comic-reading days, when the Battle of Britain heroes werre all stiff upper lip and fighting gloriously for King and country.