20 Nov 2017

Classic planes, 'Love is in the air'

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 20 November 2017

Renowned writer and photographer Ivor Wilkins' new book Classic Planes explores not just the machines, but the aviation pioneers of New Zealand history and the engineers working to obsessively rebuild their planes today. 

He says he spent two years on the book, having already written a similar book about classic boats, "which I did know quite a lot about, and then the suggestion was that I do a book about classic aeroplanes which I - to be honest - knew much less about. 

"But I just got captured by all the stories and the romance and the expertise and the freedom and the hijinks and just the incredible atmosphere about these incredible aeroplanes."

"I really wanted to tell the stories, the stories of the people and the stories of the aeroplanes and how they met up and what inspired them." 

He said his introduction to planes was "the same as just about any small boy's", flying in a Tiger Moth. 

"And my memory of that is the smell of the oil and the leather and people strapping this oversized Snoopy-type helmet on my head so I could barely see anything and going off and rattling round in the sky in this wonderful old aeroplane."

His book includes stories of aeronautical pioneers like Richard Pearse, and Herbert Pither who said he flew a plane in 1910 on the same beach in Invercargill that would later be used by Burt Munro for trialling motorbikes. 

It also detailed some of the restoration experts working today, like Colin Smith, who built a replica of Pither's plane and flew it successfully and Ivan Mudrovcich, who is trying to do the same for Richard Pearse's bamboo-and-canvas planes. 

"Ivan is not a flyer, but he's a motorcycle mechanic and he's been involved in motorcross and all of those sort of things and he was approached by a group who wanted to do a Pearse reconstruction and he was asked to build the engine. 

"It's sort of like the classic Kiwi story, he disappeared into his shed and worked away on this engine and finally got it going - I mean he managed to reproduce the Pearse engine - and came back and found the other committee had disappeared and nothing was being done about the airframe. 

"So he figured he'd got this far he might as well keep going ... so Ivan's entire life for the last 10 years has been consumed by bamboo invading his entire house - his bedroom, his lounge, everywhere - and he's built this, it's an interpretation really because nobody has exact drawings of what Pearse did. 

"Mudrovcich has really gone into this very deeply and he's established that the Pearse wingspan was way way bigger than those representations we've seen before." 

He said Mr Mudrovcich was now unwell and the fate of the project was unknown.

"It's almost Quixotic in a way because it is just an interpretation and there's some people who dispute that that's what Pearse's plane looked like. So, if it flies, does it necessarily prove that Pearse's could fly - probably not. 

"But it's a magnificent obsession."