If you ever find yourself in the Marlborough region of New Zealand and you feel like you can’t take any more wine tasting tours, then I just may have an alternative activity for you. Just 5km outside Bleinheim you will find the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Located at the famous Omaka Aerodrome, the heritage centre is full of memorabilia in great condition from The Great War. Peter Jackson sits on the board of the centre and Weta Workshops were called in to help with displays, so it is a really professional, sleek set-up. Oh and there are loads of planes too!
In the centre you can opt for a guided tour or a self-guided wander. We went for the former but if you decide to self-guide there are plenty of staff about should you have any questions. Most of the staff are retired and have volunteered in the centre due to their passion for aviation and history. In fact many of the guides are retired pilots who flew for the New Zealand army so they have first hand knowledge of what it is like to be in the air.
Needless to say there are loads of planes here on display. Some are recreations but there are actually some originals that the museum managed to find and are now preserving for the future.
The jewel in the crown is an original Caproni CA22, which is the only one remaining in the world. These planes were produced from 1913 and this example spent most of its life in storage, hence it survived this long.
You can get right up to many of the planes so you can see into the cockpit. You see what pilots had to work with, it is a little terrifying.
Another feature which I had known but don’t think I fully comprehended was the fact that pilots were uncovered. If a gunner was needed they were also uncovered and they manually used the attached gun. I cannot fathom how they kept their nerves in the planes when airborne. This was perfectly shown by the Etrich Taube display.
Some of the developing technology was really interesting to see. Below is a seaplane which was developed by pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss and there is only four known examples known to exist.
There are loads of models, previews of which can be found on the centre’s website.
Detailed scenario displays
A lot of effort went into the displays in the centre and often the planes were set up with a scenario. Some of these reflected real life events and others just gave a feel of what the era was like. As stated above Weta Workshops came in to work on the faces of the wax figures. Our guide explained how they used their employees faces for the models so often he has people on the tour looking for the face of someone they know!
Memorabilia from all sides
Pretty much all forces who fought in the war were represented in the memorabilia displays. Here you can see clothing, art work, photographs, furniture, letters and much more from army personnel. I really liked the diversity of objects and the fact that both the “winners” and “losers” were included. Too often I think the focus is placed on the winning side but here I leaned a lot about other points of view in the war.
I found the customisation of clothing fascinating. Soldiers would carve out identities for themselves and their troops through their clothing. Below is a picture of an unusual French helmet.
They also did this through paintings and art works. The skeleton was a very popular motif!
One thing I found very strange was the existence of collectable postcards with pictures of soldiers. Children would collect these cards and the soldiers became famous country-wide.
Propaganda Posters were a big feature in the centre. Many of these posters came from Peter Jackson’s personal collection and are originals, not copies. I find propaganda posters fascinating and there was a great range to view here, from recruitment advertisements to those asking for people to buy bonds or turn in their silver for bullet manufacture. This discourse is fascinating and you can learn a lot from the pictures and commentaries.
Women and the War
To my delight there was plenty of mention of women in the war. Too often women are just included only a footnote, but here we actually get to learn about women active in the war. My favourite object was the jacket below which was worn by a woman in the Royal Air Force.
I also adored the training posters which were targeted at women who were needed to carry out industrial jobs. The men were away fighting so women came by the thousands to work to support the war and their families.
Women were also needed for fundraising. They were often targeted for the savings bond schemes. However unlike the poster in the propaganda section asking that they invest to save their children the poster below likens them to the warrior Joan of Arc. I thought this was really interesting as women were being included in the fighting rhetoric even if they were not employed by the army.
This is a really small part of the museum but there is a rail of clothes recreating aviation styles at the entrance . They are a bit of fun and you can pose beside the planes as if they are ours. I am below trying to give my best aviatrix pose.
Real life flying
Of course if all this looking at plane’s make you long for the sky, fear not! Your needs have been catered for in the centre as outside they have a Boeing Stearman available for hire. It is only a three-seater so two can go at a time and the ride takes about 20 minutes. I was not brave enough but I am sure it is great fun!
I had a great morning of fun at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Fans of military or technology history will be spoiled for things to look at and learn about. I highly recommend a morning spent in the centre before/after wine tasting. If you go up in the plane do let us know what it is like.
If you would like to know more about WW1 aircraft check out Phil Carradice’s book First World War in the Air.
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