Ashburton aerodrome in mid-Canterbury offers more than a southbound refuelling stop. It holds a treasure trove. The Ashburton Aviation Museum is low profile but high value.
It's too clichéd to talk about a "labour of love", so let's just say the enthusiasm that has spent 36 years developing this museum gives a "coming home" feel to the place for any aviation lover. In fact the oil-stained-overalls-clanging-tools atmosphere is a big part of its appeal.
However, the exhibits are pretty impressive too. For one thing there are 27 aircraft at last count, some pretty rare, which we'll get to in a minute.
Let's begin, though, with the walls and alcoves full of photos, models, medals and memorabilia: the usual museum material but in unusually large quantities and with some that are definitely different. For example a "space ball" that fell to earth from the Soviet satellite Cosmos 482 when it broke up over the South Island in 1972. Or an impressive diorama of RNZAF Station Ashburton circa 1942 – 44. There is also — sensitive readers may wish to skip this paragraph — the very axe that smashed 96 still-in-the-boxes Merlin engines, not to mention several Mosquitos, which were purchased for scrap in 1957 by local engineer Cliff Horrell. One of the four perpetrators of this holocaust was Les Vincent, who later worked off his bad karma by becoming a pilot, Auster owner and president of the museum.
However, according to curator Jim Chivers, Les "does get hell" over his youthful barbarism. In his defence, though, Jim asks how many of us have ditched what we once termed "rubbish" that we'd now pay through the nose to reacquire?
The museum originated with a meeting in the Ashburton Library on 29 October 1974 to consider the possibility of forming an historic aviation society. It was initiated by 17-year-old aviation enthusiast Peter McQuarters, then a typographer for the Ashburton Guardian. Eight men joined him over tea and biscuits and decided to give it a go. The following month they gained their first charge: a Bofors AA gun donated by Burnett's Motors.
It's worth noting that almost all of the eight survivors of that meeting remain members of today's Ashburton Aviation Museum Society (one, Ian Royds, died in February). The special atmosphere owes much to this continuity. By general call Jim is the heart and soul of the museum.
But back then, getting it underway was like trying to push-start a 747. Years passed as the team sought to acquire land at Tinwald on which to build a facility but were stymied by bureaucrats. The growing number of members kept things moving, though, by recruiting wives, families and friends for fundraising.
Then the RNZAF put its Harvards up for tender. Inspired by the chance to have a really serious museum exhibit, the team put in a $2500 bid for one, and on 25 May 1978 was informed that, subject to payment within a month, it now owned North American Harvard Mk 2a, c/n 88-9269, RNZAF code NZ1012. Jubilation was tempered, however, by the fact that their trust had exactly $153.14 in the bank.
But the people of Ashburton rallied in support, and in 24 days they raised the money. The Harvard was towed to Ashburton along SH 1 and parked up in a farm shed.
The acquisition gave impetus to a hangar fundraising campaign. The Harvard made its contribution at various public events, while members made their contributions through running market stalls and raffles — one at the Tinwald Tavern ran every Saturday night for 12 years — cutting firewood, carting hay, donating the profits from paddocks of crops, selling Christmas hampers, helicopter rides and public sponsorship for each of the 2000 concrete blocks needed for the hangar, and hiring their Bofors to Walt Disney studios for a movie at Queenstown.
Ashburton isn't a big place — the town has 17,000 people — and if the members were the instigators of all this, the community were its essential supporters.
In 1982 the team gave up on the bureaucrats and made the happy decision to locate the museum at Ashburton aerodrome. Construction of the hangar began in 1984. Most of the labour was voluntary, with many local firms offering services at discount rates. Burnett's Motors made sure its old Bofors had a roof over its muzzle by donating the use of a crane to hoist the hangar's steel trusses into place. In August 1990 the hangar was completed, and the museum had a place to display its growing collection of aircraft.
In fact the collection was already so big that when the adjacent building, a scenic flight operations base, came up for sale soon afterward the team cast covetous eyes on its plane-sized workshop and upstairs office space. The asking price seemed off their screen, but a new fundraising campaign was launched, grants money secured, and finally a mortgage committed to. The building was acquired in 1994 and paid off in 2000. As well as the museum's workshop facility for aircraft restorations, this hangar is now home to what must be one of the best aviation libraries in the country, with thousands of books donated or bequeathed by members.