Dramatic Scenes at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

With the town of Blenheim surrounded by hectares and hectares of vineyards, you wouldn’t assume there was anything more to New Zealand’s largest wine-making region. But, amongst all the food and wine lies a collection for a different type of enthusiast: the aircraft enthusiast. And that was just the second wrong assumption we made today…

We park up at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, just a 5-10 minute drive out of Blenheim town centre, in front of some huge hangers. Inside those hangers, we sort of picture rows and rows of unimaginative displays of vintage aircraft. As soon as we walk into reception, we are all like: “Hang on a minute…”

This is not what we were expecting!

People and hustling and bustling between the counter, cafe and gift shop right underneath a suspended WW1 Russian plane with a mannequin inside throwing a grappling hook across the room. The still scene is so action-packed and so detailed, it becomes pretty obvious that this is going to be far from your dusty old museum.

Like a scene straight out of a Peter Jackson Movie

Tickets purchased, map in hand, we enter into a dimly-lit room with spotlights on a couple of scenes. We say “scenes” because this hanger is displays the World War 1 planes in static scenes of real moments in history. It’s not just about the planes; it’s about the people who used them. What’s more, the mannequins have look unnervingly realistic! Stare at them long enough and you expect them to turn their head and stare at you back. One of the guides on the floor of the museum, there and ready to ask questions to, tells us that the mannequins have been made by Weta, the same movie-making team behind the make-up, costume and special effects in The Lord of the Rings. Speaking of Middle-earth, most of this collection is owned by Sir Peter Jackson, New Zealand’s most famous movie director. Along with his production company, Wingnut Films, and heaps of volunteers, they have created WW1 flight scenes that look like they’re straight from the movies.

An amazing scene created by movie-makers, Wingnut and Weta An amazing scene created by movie-makers, Wingnut and Weta
A scene of the death of The Red Baron A scene of the death of The Red Baron
Checking out the WW2 plane displays Checking out the WW2 plane displays
An epic scene of a crash landing An epic scene of a crash landing

The evolution of planes

This first hanger is the evolution of aviation throughout WW1, starting with a sketchy-looking Italian Caproni CA22 (Thanks Aviation Centre map!). There have been quite a few unusual experimentations of trying to invent a plane that a soldier can shoot from, from the bird-like Etrich Taube to the the early Fokker designs with a propeller built in the middle(?!) of the plane.

fun facts and memorabilia

Between rooms, we walk through glass case-line corridors filled with aviation memorabilia. The first of which show aviation uniforms of allied forces to go along with individual stories of WW1 ace pilots. Information boards tell the stories, but the guides are never too far away to chime in with a fun fact.

For instance, when we are looking at a pair of long boots, we are asked: “Have you ever heard of the Ugg Boot?” This Australian-designed boot that looks like comfy slippers that you wear outdoors? Yeah, we might have heard of it, “Well, this is the Fugg Boot.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your WW1 fashion fact of the day!

As you can tell, we were not expecting planes displayed in such dramatic scenes!

UNBELIEVABLE stories of ace pilots

On the note of discovering stories about the people of WW1, we see a scene of a guy riding on the wing of his plane inches above the trenches, his long coat moulded into mid-flapping in the air. Information panels show that this Kiwi guy was going down, seemingly heading toward his death, when he decides he’ll take a leap of faith to avoid burning to death. He gets out onto the wing to find that this slows the plane down and he can surf the air all the way to the trenches of his allies. Ah, classic Kiwis…

Look out for the birds!

We talked about those realistic mannequins made by Weta, (we saw more of their work in Wellington), but the scenes surrounding them are mind-blowing in their own right. One that particularly stands out to us is a snowy scene of a Nieuport 27 in a tree. The trunk is real while the branches are man-made, yet we cannot tell where the real turns into the synthetic. We also spot a crow sitting in the tree – something to really keep an eye out for with all the scenes here at Omaka Aviation Centre. There are subtle details, mostly involving animals and birds, that you need to look out for! (Yes, “need” is the right word here).

Robin eyes up this plane which is actually for sale Robin eyes up this plane which is actually for sale
One of the ace women's stories, the Russian Lydia Litvyak One of the ace women's stories, the Russian Lydia Litvyak
An allied bi-plane from WW1 An allied bi-plane from WW1

Rare artifacts of The Red Baron

More stories are told from the Axis Powers in the other half of this hanger, including showing a powerful scene of the death of The Red Baron. This is just one of the examples where you wonder how the hell did this museum at the bottom of the South Pacific get a hold of such rare items, like various family heirlooms from The Red Baron. Along with that, many of the planes here are “the last engine-running plane of its kind”, “one of the last two that can fly”, “the only replica made of the Morane Saulnier BB”, etc. We have to step back a moment and realise how lucky we are to even see what we’re seeing! And that’s just hanger one!

“Dangerous Skies” in the second hanger

Hanger two holds the exhibition of Dangerous Skies, showcasing the planes and stories of World War 2. Again, there is a similar style of “scenes”, for instance, displaying a Kiwi pilot’s story of crash-landing at a British garden party and joining in for the festivities. We also get to learn more about Stalingrad and the Eastern Front, not only displayed through memorabilia but with a dome theatre experience.

We walk into a room made to look like a devastated building, a factory, in the midst of a Stalingrad airstrike. There’s a large screen behind us, a curved screen in front… and we witness the place being bombed, shot at, and crashed into, then followed by a more educational piece that just shocks you with facts and statistics from Stalingrad.

We put the “ASS” in assumption

With our assumptions about the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre stomped by the epic movie-like scenes displayed throughout the exhibitions, we head back out into the car park for the drive back to Blenheim.

Join us tomorrow, where we are going on a wildlife-spotting mission into the Marlborough Sounds. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

One of the guides tells us more about this Yakovlev Yak-3 plane
One of the guides tells us more about this Yakovlev Yak-3 plane Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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