Freezing conditions, screaming supersonic jets and dodgy helicopter doors are all in a day's work for reporter JONATHON HOWE, who followed Defence Minister Wayne Mapp during a tour of a military exercise between New Zealand and Australian armed forces at Waiouru this week. He ponders New Zealand's role in the world's wars.
It is hard to fall out of a helicopter, I'm told.
Apparently, there are centrifugal forces at play, which, in the event of an emergency, pull you inside rather than throw you out.
Reassured, but not entirely convinced, I board the same Air Force Iroquois as Defence Minister Wayne Mapp and assembled military brass from Australia and New Zealand.
Although I consider myself a dab hand at flying these days – I've been on two previous helicopter flights – my stomach churns and my jaw locks as I take a window seat in the Huey.
The grey-coloured remnant of the Vietnam War is one of 14 choppers that have served the Air Force well since 1965, but will be replaced by eight NH90 utility helicopters next year.
We are being flown to Waiouru's army training area for a close-up view of Exercise Willoh – a joint operation between Australian F-18 jets and New Zealand forces from Linton's 16 Field Regiment and Whenuapai's 40 Squadron.
Similar exercises started in the mid 1970s, but stopped when New Zealand's combat wing of Skyhawks was disbanded.
The Huey's crew are good-natured chaps – as I've come to expect from pilots – who launch smoothly into the air at the Ohakea Air Force Base.
My eyes, however, are fixed on the door's lock switch, which pointed to two o'clock before we left, but soon creeps to one o'clock. It ends up on 12 o'clock but, fortunately, the door doesn't fly open and send me screaming into the abyss.
It's hard to convey how beautiful the North Island countryside looks from the air.
Leaving the last vestiges of humanity behind at Ohakea, we soar over hills that roll across the landscape like waves on a green-and-brown ocean.
Twisted paths, travelled only by animals and farm bikes, weave across the land, which is pock-marked by black pools of water that glisten in the sun.
Clumps of trees are wedged between valleys and rivets, while herds of sheep scamper in unison across otherwise vacant fields.
About halfway through the 30-minute journey, the hills merge into angular, pyramid-like constructions that look as though someone's thrown a blanket over a pile of furniture.
The temperature gets noticeably cooler as we reach Waiouru's training ground on the Central Volcanic Plateau.
The Huey banks in a sweeping motion to the landing area, we touch down, then roll out as the whizzing rotors churn above our heads. Dr Mapp, Group Captain Edward Poot, an air force photographer, and I, pile into a four-wheel-drive, which is being driven by Lieutenant Colonel Matt Boggs – the commanding officer of 16 Field Regiment.
Lieutenant Colonel Boggs tells the minister: "I may have to drive quite aggressively to get up this hill, sir." This proves to be the euphemism of the day because he floors it up the rutted path, sending us spinning around the car like clothes in a washing machine.
It's thankfully a short trip, and we pile out to see a hillside bunker with camouflaged outposts, and laser-targeting devices. The gunners there are selecting ground targets on nearby hills, and sending orders through to the F-18 pilots.
Once briefed, the jets roar in for the kill, with each successful attack creating a white puff of smoke in the distance.
Lieutenant Colonel Boggs says a small number of New Zealand soldiers are trained as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) – a training programme that allows soldiers to call in air, sea, or land strikes, on ground targets.
The lack of a combat wing in New Zealand means this exercise gives gunners an opportunity to use JTAC skills.
Arranging Exercise Willoh took about a year, but was mutually beneficial for both forces, he says.
"Something like this is a big deal. We are talking tens of thousands of dollars an hour to run these aircraft."
The geography of Waiouru provided the F-18s with a complex environment, similar to terrain in Afghanistan, he says.
The five F-18 Hornets are part of the Australian Air Force's No3 Squadron, which is based at Williamtown, near Sydney.
I think the name hornet fails to describe their nature. They resemble eagles while circling their prey in the cold and windy Waiouru mountains. One menacing jet approaches its target, dropping steadily before delivering its imaginary payload and screaming back into the air.
As they zip through the sky, the soldiers, politicians and media people crane their necks to see the majestic machines.
There's an air-popping moment when a Hornet flies over our position – its raw power made evident by the massive cacophony it leaves in its wake.
I'm impressed, but one grizzled soldier drolly remarks: "The Skyhawks would have gone lower ..."
Patiently watching proceedings is Dr Mapp – a sturdy character who oversees defence, research, science, and technology, for the Government. A former lawyer and captain in the army territorials, he seems at ease in the company of military men, far removed from the machiavellian confines of the capital. He listens intently to briefings, occasionally interjecting with questions.
Dr Mapp says it is always pleasing to see Australian and New Zealand forces working together.
"Really, the whole defence force needs to be able to work closely with our ANZAC partners.
"I've always said this is the kind of joint training that we need to have more of.
"There are some fundamental skill sets that defence forces have to have, and these are the sort of skills that are actually being used in Afghanistan."
But his admiration of the ANZAC efforts did not extend to creating a permanent joint force between the nations, nor did it compel him to purchase any combat jets.
"We don't need to do that, but we do need to understand how it works in practice," Dr Mapp says.
"I mean even in Afghanistan the Australians are reliant on other people for close air support and yet they have fast jets.
"Obviously, New Zealand is a much smaller nation which is always playing a particular role, but if the need arises you have to be able to understand how it all works."
After a couple of hours on the cold hill, we head back to the Iroquois. The Huey crew members chat about the beautiful weather, point Mt Taranaki out to the minister and joke about beating the F-18s back to Ohakea.
Watching the F-18s has been interesting, but it does raise questions about whether we should have our own combat jets.
New Zealand's Defence Force prides itself on a high level of training, despite having relatively small numbers.
It's important to keep close relations with Australia, but a year spent getting their jets here seems a long time.
The ease of having our own combat jets to train and use could be a massive help to our soldiers, especially as they ply their trades in the world's many corridors of war.
- © Fairfax NZ News