The RNZAF - A potted history.

Initially New Zealand's military pilots were trained at the 2 private flying schools situated at Kohimarama in Auckland and Sockburn in Christchurch. Once trained these pilots invariably left for England to join the RAF.

A review carried out in 1919 by Colonel A. V. Bettington of the RAF at the request of the New Zealand Goverment suggested that the country should form it's own air arm. The report recommendations were however considered too ambitious by the Government of the time and were basically shelved as was the offer of 100 military aircraft by the British Government. After much procrastination 33 aircraft were finally shipped to New Zealand. The total was comprised of twenty Avro 504s, nine DH9s, two Bristol F2Bs and two DH4s. Refresher courses for military pilots using these machines were held yearly by the Canterbury Aviation Company at Sockburn under the supervision of Captain Len Isitt.

By 1923 things were looking more positive with the setting up of the New Zealand Permanent Air Force (NZPAF) as part of the New Zealand Military Forces. The assets of the Canterbury Aviation Comapny were purchased by the Government and Sir Henry Wigram gifted 10,000 pounds to the new service. In honour of this the Sockburn aerodrome was renamed Wigram. At the same time the Territorial Air Force was set up, comprised of ex World War One pilots. In 1927 an area of land was purchased at Hobsonville, Auckland and by 1929 the seaplane base and land aerodrome were opened there.

During early 1934 the NZPAF was given permission to change it's name to the Royal New Zealand Air Force by the King, and the RNZAF came into being on 27 February 1934.

Expansion finally began to take place during the late 1930's and the Government removed the RNZAF from army control in early 1937. The leadership of Ralph Cochrane who had been appointed as the first Chief of Air Staff in November 1936 added to the impetus of modernising the service. Cochrane's recommendations resulted in the ordering of 30 Wellington bombers in 1937 and the setting up of a more stable infrastructure including new stations at Whenuapai near Auckland and Ohakea near Palmerston North.

The arrival of World War 2 resulted in massive expansion of the service. By war's end the RNZAF had trained 11,529 airmen for flying duties. As well as service in Europe, a great number of these saw service in the Pacific war against Japan. In September 1939 the total manpower of the RNZAF was fewer than 1000 men. By war's end it had reached over 40,000.

Postwar the RNZAF served with the occupation forces in Japan and suffered the problems of reshaping as a smaller force. By 1952 it had emerged as a compact force of between 4000 and 5000 men and was re-equipped with modern aircraft including Vampires, Sunderlands, Hastings, Bristol Freighters, and Devons. The service had been organised into 5 permanent squadrons (2 fighter/ground attack squadrons, 1 maritime squadron, 1 transport squadron and a communications squadron), in addition to 5 territorial squadrons.

By the mid 1950's the RNZAF was serving in Cyprus and Malaya, but the end of the 1950's brought more frustration as Government policy dictated a more compact Air Force with centralised facilities. By the end of the decade the teritorial squadrons were long gone and with the exception of the newly arrived Canberras the aircraft were beginning to show their age and morale was weakening.

June 1962 saw the appointment of Air Vice Marshall Ian Morrison to the top job and with it the rekindling of the RNZAF. The 3 roles of the RNZAF were redefined as Strike, Maritime Reconnaissance and Transport. New aircraft were ordered and brought into service beginning with the Hercules. These were followed by the Orions, Sioux and Iroquois helicopters and finally the Skyhawks in 1970. The RNZAF also saw service in Vietnam and Indonesia during the decade.

The 1970's and 80's were a period of consolidation with some of the older types being phased out. The Bristol Freighters were replaced by second hand Andovers from the RAF and the Vampire trainers with new Strikemasters. Small numbers of Friendships and Cessna Golden Eagles also joined the fleet as the Devons bade farewell. The long range transport task was picked up by a couple of Boeing 727s and New Zealand built Airtrainers took up the ab initio training role.

By the 1990's the whole New Zealand Defence situation had changed with the withdrawal from the ANZUS alliance. Aircraft were upgraded rather than replaced as defence went onto the back burner of successive Governments. Apart from the replacement of the Strikemasters by Macchi 339s, and the updating of the Airtrainers with newer versions there were few upgrades and the aircraft fleets once again began to age.

The new millennium saw major changes once again for the RNZAF. On 08 May 2001 the Government announced that the Strike Force was to be disbanded by the end of that year. The Skyhawks and Macchis were withdrawn from service and offered for sale. On a brighter note the RNZAF began to take delivery of a number of Kaman Seasprite helicopters and the ageing 727s were repllced with a couple of Boeing 757s fresh from airline service. It appears that the wheel has turned the full circle with the service once again suffering from the problems of ageing aircraft and shortage of manpower.

RNZAF Serial Numbers.

A Defence Force Order (Air Force) was issued in 1992, which formalised the policy for allocation of RNZAF aircraft serial numbers. It also introduced a change to instructional airframe numbering.

The policy for airworthy aircraft serial numbers rests heavily on historical precedent. The main features are as follows:

All serial numbers comprise "NZ" plus four figures and block reservations are:

NZ1xxx Primary trainers, utility types
NZ2xxx Flying training other than pilot.
NZ3xxx Rotary wing aircraft.
NZ4xxx Maritime aircraft.
NZ6xxx Strike aircraft.
NZ7xxx Transport aircraft.

Unallocated blocks are reserved for either new roles or for overflows when any of the above blocks become over subscribed.

The first 2 figures in combination comprise a "type number", which is unique to that type during its period of service. Type number combinations may be re-used provided the type is not the "replacement" aircraft type, and provided at least one year has passed since withdrawal of the previous type that used that type number.

The last 2 figures, the tail number, must form a unique combination with the type number. This means that historically, the same serial number must not be allocated more than once. **

When disposed of, RNZAF aircraft will normally have the serial numbers removed, but subsequent owners may enter a formal arrangement with the RNZAF to mark their aircraft with RNZAF numbers so long as there is no confusion with aircraft still in RNZAF service.

For instructional airframes, a "G" will be added to the end of the RNZAF serial number, but aircraft currently allocated INST serial numbers will continue to wear them, unless they are used for display purposes. Where there is no previous RNZAF serial number, the present 3 figure series will continue but with a "G" suffix rather than the "INST" prefix.****

* There has been duplication in the past with the Baffins and Walruses, Wellingtons and Vincents, Grebes and Gipsy Moths, Meteor and Beaver.

* For example Devon INST208 formerly NZ1827 would have become NZ1827G under the new system. Likewise, Vampire WR202 would have become 171G instead of INST171.

The Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand Inc.

Much of the information contained in the New Zealand Serials Section of this website has been sourced from publications produced by the Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand.

The Society, which was founded in 1958 covers all aspects of New Zealand aviation: balloons, microlights, gliders, light aircraft, topdressers, airlines and military.

Membership is open to all on a worldwide basis and is recommended to everybody with an interest in New Zealand aviation.

The Society publishes 2 Journals (48 pages) each year and a quarterly Aerolog. Copies of previous publications dating back to 1958 are also available and make fascinating reading.

In addition members have access to the Society's extensive archives for research purposes.

The Society's website is accessible from the Links page

For Your Tomorrow.

Details of fatal accidents contained in the New Zealand Serials Section have been gleaned from a series of excellent books by Errol Martyn titled "For Your Tomorrow."

"For Your Tomorrow" Volumes 1 and 2 involved over 8000 hours of research by Errol and are indispensible works for any aviation historian.

Errol is presently working on Volume 3 and the publication of this book will complete the trilogy.

These books are highly recommended and further details are available on the website:

Thanks are also due to the RNZAF Museum and in particular Jane Provan for her patience and assistance in the compilation of this data.


Updated 15th April 2005