Laughter-Silvered Wings

Since New Zealand first took possession of the America’s Cup 9 years ago, Auckland, City of Sails, has become the global epicentre of custom-designed maritime engineering. If you’re in the market for a state-of-the-art ocean racer or a floating gin palace, this is the place to shop. The city’s harbour is usually packed with homegrown creations. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, someone can almost certainly design it for you.

When you consider New Zealand’s size and location, perhaps it’s no surprise that “Kiwis” are such extraordinary boat builders. At around 104,000 square miles, the country’s two main islands – with a sum landmass roughly the size of Colorado – are nestled between Australia and Antarctica, bordered by the Tasman Sea to the west and the Southern Pacific Ocean to the east and south. Until the advent of affordable long-haul airliners, the only way to get to or from New Zealand was afloat.

But this isn’t a story about boats; it’s a story about vintage aeroplanes. Warbirds, to be precise, and how a local company and its supplier employ the same Kiwi talent for one-off craftsmanship used in the boat building industry to realise dreams of a different kind.

v8-i29-Silvered--Wings_2.jpg

The Past Uncovered

The story begins in May 1944, when a Royal Australian Air Force pilot of 75 Squadron crash-landed his Curtiss P-40N-1 Kittyhawk fighter at Tadji Airstrip in Aitape, New Guinea, in the South Pacific.

Damaged beyond economic repair, the aircraft, like many of its kind, languished until conflict ceased, after which it was disassembled and placed in open-air storage. It remained there, effectively abandoned, until it was discovered and shipped to New Zealand in 1974 by a well-known Kiwi aircraft enthusiast, Charles Darby.

Whilst the globe was scoured for replacement parts and finance, the rescued and dismembered Kittyhawk remained hangared in New Zealand for another 20 years. Finally, in the mid-1990s, Darby and a number of business colleagues established Pacific Aircraft Ltd. to restore the plane – and to restore the increasing number of similar warbirds being salvaged from the bottom of the world’s oceans and the dense jungles of its islands.

Whether Pacific Aircraft was driven more by passion than clear business objectives is a moot point. Suffice it to say that, despite the completion of some notable projects, in 1997 the operation entered a financial flat-spin, the result of which was its inevitable demise. The partners went their separate ways and several projects were left unfinished, their owners grounded and frustrated.

Amongst Pacific Aircraft’s jilted clients was an affable and wide-eyed Kiwi businessman who had come to aviation relatively late in life, via a succession of other high-octane pastimes, including top-fuel drag racing. Having made his fortune in the auto-parts industry, Garth Hogan had entered a partnership with Darby and already made a considerable investment in the P-40 project when Pacific Aircraft “augered-in.”

v11-i37-Flexible-Shape_1.jpg

Ever the opportunist, Hogan wasn’t about to sit back and watch his investment atrophy. In true Victor Kiam spirit (“I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company”), Hogan purchased the assets, rehired the engineers and formed his own company: Pioneer Aero Restorations.

Re-Engineering

Warbirds like the Kittyhawk were conceived with function well and truly taking precedence over form. Handsome it may be, but the P-40 and other aircraft of its age were designed for ease of manufacture and low production costs. In a conflict where the life expectancy of an operational aircraft could be measured in months, manufacturability usually took precedence over longevity.

Sixty years later, the job of restoring a P-40 is a long and painstaking process, not least because airframes and components designed and built during wartime now have to comply with the regulations of the modern, increasingly safety-conscious aviation authorities. As if the process of compliance weren’t tricky enough, clients investing in warbirds don’t want aircraft re-built on engineering supposition and best guessing – they want historical accuracy. And, more often than not, they’re prepared to pay for it.

According to Hogan, there’s only a handful of air-worthy P-40s around the world, and restoring another to flying condition normally requires considerable hunting around for the necessary engineering drawings and technical information. But the fun doesn’t stop there. When the planes were first built, many of the components were made from forgings, which kept part costs low and manufacturing output high, but required expensive tooling. To replicate similar tooling for a one-off aircraft would push the overall cost of restoration well beyond the already high price that clients consider acceptable. For this reason, once the engineering drawings have been found, the next job is establishing cost-effective processes to reproduce the replacement parts.

“Pioneer builds to a pre-agreed contract price,” says Hogan. “Many restoration companies are run by enthusiasts, not businessmen, and they frequently deliver aircraft well over the original quote. We’ve established a reputation for delivering very high-quality aircraft without over-shooting our cost estimate. In this industry that, in itself, is very unusual.” And with costs normally upwards of $1 million (US) per aircraft, payment is usually made in increments, as and when Pioneer meets pre-agreed build deadlines.

“We’d been using a local machine shop to produce certain difficult-to-manufacture parts,” continues Hogan, “typically, parts requiring a lot of engineering, but manufactured in small and infrequent batches.

“Unfortunately, for these reasons, the shop we were using considered our work very low priority, and since we’re working hard to meet build deadlines – and payment depends on us meeting them – we simply couldn’t afford to be at the mercy of a single supplier.”

Eric Paton

Help was at hand: A long-time personal friend of Hogan, Peter Thompson, Managing Director of Auckland-based Haas distributor Aotea Machinery, knew exactly who could deliver Pioneer from its potentially ruinous predicament.

In April 2001, Thompson’s company had installed a Haas VF-3 vertical machining centre at the Penrose workshops of Eric Paton Ltd, a general engineering workshop specializing in precision machining, with almost 60 years of experience in solving complex engineering problems.

Thompson introduced the two companies, knowing full well that Paton’s Haas VF-3 – equipped with a Haas HRT-310 rotary table – together with the company’s Mastercam offline programming package would be the ideal combination for reproducing otherwise prohibitively expensive parts.

Eric Paton was established in 1948 as a general engineering and heat-treatment workshop. As the company grew and prospered, it eventually expanded into making woodworking heads in the 1960s, and then, in 1971, gearboxes under licence for an English company.

These days, Eric Paton Ltd is owned and run by Doug Burt. Originally hired by the founder in 1958 as company secretary, Burt bought the company two years after Paton’s death in 1985. After some painful restructuring, he set about consolidating the company’s position as a general engineering and machine shop, and as a maker of replacement parts and repairs for the dairy, forestry, steel and agricultural industries.

No stranger to CNC machine tools – Burt claims that the company was the second in New Zealand to install a CNC machine, back in 1967 – when the time was right to invest in a new machine, Peter Thompson arranged a trip to Chicago, to the biennial International Manufacturing Technology Show IMTS, to see the latest range of Haas VMCs. On the way home, Burt and Thompson stopped off in Oxnard, California, to take a look at the Haas manufacturing facility.

“We’d been looking at other machines, but we had serious reservations about the backup and support,” says Burt. “When I saw the Haas factory, I was so impressed – with the company, its infrastructure and the general attitude there – that we decided there and then to buy a Haas machine. I have to say, it probably won’t be the last.”

One of the main reasons Burt chose the VF-3 is because of the space it allowed for adding a good-sized rotary table. “We needed a 4th axis with plenty of torque for machining the woodworking cutters,” says John O’Dwyer, Eric Paton’s workshop manager, “so we bought the Haas HRT 310. The VF-3 gives plenty of spindle clearance,” he adds. “We’re also machining a number of long parts, so the VF-3’s 1219 mm table is very useful. Quite often we have to open the two end windows on the machine so we can pass long parts through.”

“We really market ourselves as a general machining and design shop,” explains Burt, “so we do a wide variety of work for a lot of different clients, including making complete winches for a company called Alloy Yachts, one of New Zealand’s best known super-yacht builders.”

In fact, it was the company’s versatility and ability to engineer complex parts that made it such an attractive candidate when Pioneer was looking for an innovative and reliable machine shop. “When Garth Hogan brought us the P-40 wing components to re-engineer,” says Burt, “John Dwyer, programmer Gavin Davies, and machine operator Nigel Allsop-Smith put their heads together and devised a way of machining the parts.”

Re-engineering components originally designed and made in the 1930s and ’40s is a tricky business, and the fact that they’ve been rotting and corroding at the bottom of the sea or in a jungle on a Pacific island for 50 years certainly doesn’t help. “Pioneer located and supplied the microfilms,” says O’Dwyer, “but they were incomplete and, in many cases, very difficult to interpret. For example, with regard to one rather vital but missing piece of information the drawing simply stated ‘same as Navy’!

“As interesting and challenging as they may be, Pioneer may only be working on a couple of aircraft at any one time,” continues O’Dwyer. “So, although the jobs may take a while, the volume is quite low.

“For such low quantities we don’t want to go to the extra time and considerable additional expense of making the tooling to reproduce these parts as forgings, so we’re machining them from solid using the Haas HRT 310 rotary table to reproduce the difficult angles between the surfaces.”

“Gavin and John deal directly with Garth at Pioneer,” adds Burt. “Between them they guide the company through the process of re-engineering a part, then actually making it. So they tell us, it’s exactly the kind of service they were looking for.”

Garth Hogan has another business near to Eric Paton, so when he’s in the neighbourhood, he often drops in to see Gavin and John to discuss exactly what he needs. They work the details out between them and move jobs along quickly and with minimum delay. Hogan claims that working this way has made a big difference and given him the peace of mind he needed. “Pioneer is nowhere near our biggest customer,” says Burt, “and the work isn’t very regular. On the other hand, it is interesting work. Gavin and John certainly find it challenging, and they’ve made very good use of the Haas and the CAD/CAM software.”

March 17th, 2000 – of Mustangs and Motorcycles

Almost 56 years after her hapless pilot consigned her unceremoniously to an uncertain future as part of the New Guinea landscape, the Kittyhawk, re-registered G-AC, took to the skies at the hands of Pioneer test pilot John Lamont.

As well as being an emotional moment for Hogan, the P-40’s rebirth was an important milestone for Pioneer: the best marketing the company could wish for, especially during the early stages of establishing a name for itself.

On Sunday, February 2, 2003, a few days after my visit to Pioneer and Eric Paton, I had my chance to see Hogan’s Kittyhawk in action.

At exactly 12:30 pm, accompanied by a restored P51 Mustang, G-AC swept fast and low across the start-finish line of a classic motorcycle race meeting at the Pukekohe race circuit just outside Auckland; the roar of the Allison V12 engine prompting spectators and riders to look skyward, silent and awestruck.

The venue was fitting; the sights and sounds overhead were undeniably evocative, and the rolling and wheeling pair flooded the event with a wave of nostalgia fully appreciated by the classic motorcycle crowd below.

Like classic race bikes, restoring warbirds is about reliving the spirit of a bygone age: In this case, a flying reminder of a period that has come to be regarded as amongst humanity’s darkest hours. Warbirds are restored and flown by the passionate, with deference for and in honour of the men and women who built them, and to the memory of the often very young pilots who selflessly flew them in combat, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

Also like classic racing motorcycles, the magic of warbirds lures the passionate to a place where danger and thrills keep uneasy company. There’s nothing inherently safe about ripping up a stretch of asphalt on a vintage racing machine. Likewise, there’s little room for error in a 60-year-old aircraft touching speeds of more than 400 mph. Occasionally things go wrong.

In white letters on its portside fuselage, G-AC carries a tribute to the memory of Mark Hanna of the UK-based organisation The Old Flying Machine Company. An ex-Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot and personal friend of Hogan, the 40-year-old Hanna perished in an accident during an air display near Barcelona, Spain, in 1999. He was flying a restored Spanish-built version of the World War II German Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter.

For those who wonder what strange forces compel enthusiasts like Hogan to continue in the aftermath of such painful losses, a young Canadian by the name of John Gillespie Magee, a mere teenager when he died at the controls of his Spitfire in 1941, offers the earthbound insight into the passion and the poetry of high-flight (on the following page). Sentiments shared, perhaps, by all those who have ever looked skyward to fulfill a dream.