HOOD AERODROME AND EARLY FLYING IN THE WAIRARAPA
Flying came early to the Wairarapa. Just ten years after the American Wright Brothers first flew in 1903, successful flights took place at Pigeon Bush near Featherston and at Gladstone.
Wellington engineer Percy Fisher designed and built small monoplane in 1912. He brought it over the Rimutakas by train and tested it at Pigeon Bush. Although he made some short ‘hops’, the weather was too windy and he decided to try the flat farmland at Hurunui-o-rangi near Gladstone. Between June and August 1913, the Fisher Monoplane made many short flights. His monoplane was filmed and photographed and a short silent film of the flights was shown in theatres. This was the first New Zealand-built aircraft to fly.
After World War One (1914-1918) there was great interest in aviation and many record-breaking flights were made. Pioneer pilots were treated as celebrities and the aircraft became a reliable form of transport. People in the Wairarapa wanted the district to be part of the aviation industry. After public meetings, the Wairarapa Aero Club was formed in August 1929. The name was later changed to Wairarapa and Ruahine Aero Club.
The first job for the new club was to build airfields. By February 1930, Martinborough had an airfield and a hangar. Flight Lieutenant Park was the first instructor and a De Havilland Moth, ZK-ABE was bought by the club. Six pupils began training in Martinborough and Jack Kingsnorth was the first to gain his license.
Land for a Masterton airfield was donated on the South Road extension near the Waingawa River. Working bees, including college boys, cleared the stony land. On 14 March 1931 the first official North Island Pageant was held at the new airfield, with 33 aircraft attending. At the air show, Masterton’s airfield was named Hood Aerodrome after George Hood, a Masterton pilot who had died trying to fly the first Tasman Sea crossing in January 1928. A clubhouse was built, later burning down in 1949.
Wairarapa was visited by several famous pilots in the 1930s. Australian airmen Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm flew their big tri-motors here, offering joy rides for 10 shillings. After flying from England to Australia, New Zealander Jean Batten also visited in August 1934 when she was given a civic reception.
When war came in September 1939, the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) took all club aircraft for pilot training so the Wairarapa and Ruahine Aero Club stopped flying. In 1940, the RNZAF decided to use Hood Aerodrome and more land was bought by the government to increase the airfield’s size, similar to what it is now. In April 1942, 14 (Fighter) Squadron arrived in Masterton, at first with Harvard trainers and later with P-40 Kittyhawk fighters. Air Force officers lived in a Masterton hotel while the ground staff lived at a camp near the east end of Kuripuni Street. Blast pens, to protect the aircraft from attack, were constructed around the airfield and there were three runways. 14 Squadron left Masterton in 1943 to fight in the South Pacific.
After war ended in 1945, the aero club began flying again using Tiger Moths, Proctors and Auster aircraft, but for a time in the 1950s there was little flying done. A new clubhouse was built in the early 1950s.
Trials for aerial topdressing using RNZAF Avenger aircraft were held at Hood in 1949 and soon after Air Contracts, using Tiger Moths, began topdressing with Hood Aerodrome as the base. Masterton became part of the new topdressing industry with several companies at Hood. Trials with a large Bristol Freighter dropping up to 6 tonnes of fertilizer were held in 1954. Through the 1950s and 1960s many different types of topdressing aircraft were seen at Hood Aerodrome – Cessnas, Fletchers, Pipers, Agricolas and Beavers.
The Wairarapa and Ruahine Aero Club became more active and bought modern light craft. The club also had gliders from 1959 and Hood became an important base for gliding, with Wairarapa conditions being very suitable. The club used winch and aircraft launching and national gliding competitions saw many gliders circling Masterton.
In the 1960s, Hood Aerodrome became an airline destination when South Pacific Airlines of New Zealand (SPANZ) was formed by Rex Daniell of Masterton and Bob Anderson. The airline flew DC-3 Viewmasters to smaller cities and towns from 1960 to 1966. It was difficult for a small airline to compete with New Zealand’s national airline NAC and since SPANZ several other airlines have tried to offer passenger services from Masterton without much success.
Over the years there have been many air pageants at Hood Aerodrome and an airshow in March 1954 was part of Masterton’s centennial celebrations.