The WoW Factor

The place to go for the world’s best warbird-watching? Warbirds over Wanaka, New Zealand.

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There was no missing Wallis’ interest in Russian aircraft. He’s made several scouting trips to Russia. On one, in Siberia, he found enough parts of Polikarpov fighters to commission the restoration of three I-53 Chaikas and six I-16 Ishaks to flying condition. The I-16, conceived by Nikolai Polikarpov in the 1930s, is a low-wing monoplane with retractable undercarriage—the first fighter with that soon-to-be-ubiquitous design. The show featured a formation flight of two I-16s and one I-153.

Another Eastern-bloc attraction was the pairing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-31 and a Lithuanian aerobatic pilot, Jurgis Kairys. An engineer and test pilot for the Sukhoi Design Bureau, Kairys pioneered unlimited free-style aerobatic flying. Unlike traditional classes of aerobatic competition, which dictate the directions, axes, and other parameters in which a routine must be flown, the unlimited free-style class has few such rules.

Kairys’ act began with a roar and a burst of smoke; suddenly he was airborne, more like a cannonball than an aircraft. Kairys yanked the Su-31 into a vertical climb, then leveled off, then climbed and leveled, again and again.

Next, Kairys climbed until his aircraft was almost out of sight. He plummeted down into a dizzying corkscrew dive, disappearing into a river valley below the airfield, emerging in full vertical climb and rolling the aircraft all the way up. At the climb’s apex he paused, hanging the Su-31 from its propeller, before finally dropping down to repeat the routine. A lifelong pilot and World War II veteran watching the act shook his head and said: “Jeez! I’m glad I never had to dogfight this fella.”

The afternoon brought another rarity, the world’s only airworthy Lavochkin La-9. Compared with the chubby Policarpovs, the La-9 looked sleek, fast, and powerful. Seeing the two side by side, you could only marvel at how rapidly the design of Russian piston engine aircraft had advanced in just 20 years.

World War II was over by the time the La-9s became operational. They served the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries. North Korean pilots flew them in the Korean War, but they could not compete with the North American F-86s and other jet fighters fielded against them, so many were converted for ground attack, a role they performed more successfully.

Only five La-9s exist today. This specimen had been taken out of service with the Chinese air force in the early 1960s. After 10 years of negotiations, it is now owned by Ray Hanna of the Old Flying Machine Company in Great Britain and Garth Hogan of Pioneer Aero Restorations in Auckland, New Zealand. The owners had the engine and propeller overhauled in the Czech Republic in 2002, while the airframe was shipped to Pioneer Aero Restorations. Luckily, Hogan’s team had most of the parts it needed. “Our main obstacle was that, although we scoured the world to learn as much as we could about the La-9, our best source of documentation was an operation manual written in heavily jargoned Russian,” Hogan recalls. “Often the translations we had done made no sense at all.”

The restoration took two years. Finally, in March 2003, the La-9 flew again, piloted by New Zealand airshow coordinator John Lamont.

It was also Lamont who flew it today, roaring past the grandstand at jet speed. Suddenly he looped away and disappeared from the sky. A silence fell as the crowd tensely scanned the horizon. Finally, the show commentator announced that the La-9 had developed engine trouble and the pilot might need to land at another airfield. In the end, he did land in Wanaka, away from the crowd, and taxied to the hangar. The engine problem was fixed, and the La-9 was pleasing crowds the next day.

On Sunday came yet another Eastern Bloc show-stealer, the graceful Czech-built Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros jet trainer. The 1960s design flew wingtip to wingtip with three unexpected partners: two de Havilland Vampires—fighters designed in the 1940s—and a Cessna A-37 Dragonfly light strike-fighter, which served in Vietnam.

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