The advent of powered flight in the early 20th century was greeted with excitement by many New Zealanders. Enthusiasts set about building aircraft – of their own design, or from imported plans. Experimental flights were made, clubs were formed, and would-be pilots learned to fly at the New Zealand Flying School in Auckland and the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company in Christchurch during and after the First World War.
The aero club movement
Regional aero clubs were founded from the late 1920s, and in 1930 they were affiliated through the New Zealand Aero Club, later known as the Royal New Zealand Aero Club. The clubs purchased training aircraft, established aerodromes and taught men, and a few women, to fly. From the 1930s they received government funding to train pilots for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Many of these men flew with distinction during the Second World War.
A wartime ban on private flying was lifted in 1946, but many of the aero clubs struggled to cover costs. Between 1955 and 1962 they received government subsidies, which enabled them to recover financially and purchase new aircraft. Despite economic downturns, fuel shortages, and changes in aviation regulations during the 1970s and 1980s, most aero clubs have survived and are flourishing.
The Royal New Zealand Aero Club
The Royal New Zealand Aero Club (RNZAC) represents New Zealand at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world organisation for promoting non-commercial aviation and air sports; it also administers FAI awards in New Zealand. In addition to networking and lobbying, the RNZAC operates a pilot proficiency scheme and runs competitions for skills such as navigation, landing, aerobatics and formation flying.
Learning to fly
Training pilots is still a key role of aero clubs, although there are also private air schools. After the exhilarating first solo flight, learners work towards their private pilot’s licence and ratings for various types of flying, including night flying, formation flying and aerobatics. Some go on to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence or instructor ratings, but for many, flying remains purely recreational.
The rise of women
Although aviation tends to be male-dominated, some women trained as pilots from the 1920s, and several were members of the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. In 1960 the New Zealand Airwomen’s Association (now the New Zealand Association of Women in Aviation) was formed to encourage women interested in powered flight, gliding and parachute jumping. Aviator Jean Batten was its patron. In 2020 the organisation had about 200 members.
The RNZAC operates a programme called Young Eagles which gives young people a taste of flying and the chance to win training scholarships. The Scout Association of New Zealand has since 1967 held the annual Walsh Memorial Scout Flying School for young people.
National aviation events
The RNZAC organises a national rally for aero-club members. Around New Zealand Air Races in 1991 and 2004 attracted entrants from throughout the world.