Magical Merlins in a flying machine

MARTY SHARPE
Last updated 05:00 19/01/2013
Marty Sharpe

The view from inside a P40 Kittyhawk as it accompanied a one-of-a-kind de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber in a fly-over of Wellington city.

Les Munro and Keith Skilling
Wings over Waiarapa
AERIAL GREATS: Last surviving member of the Dambusters and vintage aircraft pilot expert Keith Skilling in the cockpit of a Mosquito.

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They came in low over the Rimutaka Saddle going about 320kmh - three aircraft that changed the course of World War Two, bearing down on Wellington.

In front was the De Havilland Mosquito, the "wooden wonder" known for its speed, agility and low-level flying.

On either side were the Spitfire, the fighter that tore through the Luftwaffe, and the P40 Kittyhawk, the workhorse fighter of nearly every theatre of the war.

As they flew over the city at 300m they banked gently above Lambton Quay then passed swiftly over Hataitai, where Mosquito pilot Keith Skilling hit the throttles and tore ahead at about 560kmh, before diving to 30m for a southward buzz of the runway.

When the control tower said there was no traffic and he should feel free to make another pass, Skilling was quick to swing around and do it again in the other direction.

At his side in the navigator's seat was Les Munro, the last remaining member of the Dambusters. Best known for piloting Lancasters, he also spent a while in Mozzies.

The 93-year-old could be seen calmly glancing about as the aircraft flew through rays of sun on its way from Wairarapa to the harbour.

"The sound of those Merlins brings back a lot of memories," he said after the flight. The two Rolls-Royce Merlin engines meant the aircraft was capable of reaching more than 600kmh.

"It was a lovely smooth flight for us. We saw you bobbing round a bit," he said of the two fighters.

Inside a warbird the noise is immense, even when wearing headphones. The torque of the engine combined with the aircraft's bare but functional interior makes clear the designer's brief: make it fast. And the Mosquito, which could also carry bombs, really epitomised the elan of designers and airmen that won the war.

When Luftwaffe head Herman Goering first saw a Mosquito in flight he was aghast at its speed and wooden construction.

"They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops," he was reported to have remarked.

Few have seen a Mosquito in flight. It was a special day for Wellington yesterday. More so for the many whose grandfathers or fathers flew in the war.

And for me, the lucky bloke sitting in the back seat of the Kittyhawk, it was a visceral addition to the logbooks, photographs and brevet ["wings"] of the Mosquito-flying granddad I never met.

Taxiing back along Masterton's Hood aerodrome airstrip, past hundreds of cameras and gawping faces, I got the impression I might not be alone.

The Wings over Wairarapa air show runs today and tomorrow.

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- The Dominion Post

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