Aviation enthusiast buys rare WWI fighters, flies them to Marlborough

One of the four Bristol F2B Fighters bought by Graham Orphan gets unloaded from its container near Los Angeles.
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One of the four Bristol F2B Fighters bought by Graham Orphan gets unloaded from its container near Los Angeles.

Replicas of the first plane that ever touched down at Omaka Aerodrome in 1928 are winging their way to Marlborough after 30 years of looking.

In the late 1970s, Graham Orphan was flicking through a copy of a newsletter for World War I enthusiasts when something caught his eye.

A film studio had commissioned seven replicas of the Bristol F2B Fighter, widely considered one of the most handsome planes flown in the Great War, for the film High Road to China.

At the time Graham says there was only one surviving war-era Bristol left in the world able to fly, so the prospect of seven more had the aviation enthusiast giddy with excitement.

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Then came the terrible let-down. In what Graham considers a tragic mistake, the director of the film wrote the Bristols out of the project.

Graham Orphan, the proud owner of four Bristol F2B Fighters, stands in front of a contemporary aircraft, the RE8, at the ...
RICKY WILSON/STUFF

Graham Orphan, the proud owner of four Bristol F2B Fighters, stands in front of a contemporary aircraft, the RE8, at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum, in Blenheim.

"I was gobsmacked, I was devastated. It was a great rollicking yarn involving these aeroplanes flying through Europe but they didn't use them," he says.

"So since 1980 I've been asking the question: where are these Bristols? Where did they go? They've got to be somewhere."

Sometime in the early 1990s he stumbled on a clue. While watching what he describes as the "awful, awful" 1981 film Death Hunt "out of the blue comes this Bristol fighter".

A Bristol Fighter in action at the Classic Fighters Air Show, in Blenheim. (File photo)
STUFF

A Bristol Fighter in action at the Classic Fighters Air Show, in Blenheim. (File photo)

He knew it had to be one of the seven commissioned for High Road to China, but what happened to the planes after 1981 remained a mystery until earlier this year.

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Graham, the director of the Classic Fighters air show, has a friend in northern California called Chris Prevost, a friend he thought might have information on the location of the Bristols.

"He had an inkling that he'd heard a whisper some years ago about these things - tenuous, jeepers it was a wafer-thin connection," he says.

A Bristol F2B Fighter takes to the skies during Warbirds over Wanaka in 2007. (File photo)
STUFF

A Bristol F2B Fighter takes to the skies during Warbirds over Wanaka in 2007. (File photo)

But Chris proved a more than competent investigator. At Graham's prompting he tracked the Bristols down to a warehouse east of Los Angeles, where they had been "hidden" for decades.

As it turns out, all seven of the fighter bombers had been acquired by "this old guy" whose core business seemed to be following movie studios and acquiring props on the cheap, Graham says.

"He'd created this bizarre condominium of containers stacked on top of each other, and Murphy's Law being Murphy's Law the things that we wanted were in the top containers."

Graham says when Chris rang him with the news he knew he had to buy them, something he recalls with a degree of bashfulness due to the cost involved - one he was not prepared to share.

"When it's passion-driven you end up doing really, really dumb stuff. That could be the slogan for this whole heritage aviation community, this fantastic crazy community of passionate people," he says.

"What seemed the biggest waste for me, is for the last 30 years these things could have been flying and providing pleasure for people - instead they've been hiding in containers."

In the end, Graham bought four of the Bristols, the red one he saw in the film Death Hunt and another called 'Eva' - both of which have done about 30 hours of flying time.

Once they arrive in September, Graham wants to make sure all four are air-ready, then sell a couple to recover some of the costs while making sure at least one stays at Omaka.

It seems appropriate, he says, because the first plane that ever landed at Omaka Aerodrome in 1928 was a Bristol F2B Fighter.

"It seems only right that this historic place should become home once again to an example of the famous Great War fighter bomber."

 - The Marlborough Express

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