Orion arrives at New Zealand museum home

The Air Force Museum of New Zealand has officially welcomed Lockheed P-3K2 Orion NZ4203 to its collection

NZ4203 has flown more than 27,000 hours during its illustrious 54-year career. It took part in hundreds of missions including search and rescue operations, anti-submarine patrols and spent thousands of hours protecting New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Air Force Museum of New Zealand Collections Manager Darren Hammond said NZ4203 had arrived at the museum in perfect condition on 29 September following a 455km road trip from RNZAF Base Woodbourne to its final home in the Christchurch.

NZ4203's fuselage is lifted at the museum
NZ4203's fuselage is lifted at the museum AFMNZ

The trip was a logistical challenge, with the aircraft being shipped over the Lewis Pass in two convoys.

The wings, engines and propellers were transported first, with the fuselage and empennage following two weeks later.

NZ4203 attracted a huge amount of interest along the way as Kiwis turned out to see the unusual convoy go by.

NZ4203 nose first on trailer
NZ4203 nose first on trailer AFMNZ

“You don’t see an Orion on the road every day and it made for a great trip. NZ4203 is a national hero, and we were delighted to see it recognised. We can now get on and ensure its preservation for the nation. We look forward to being able to tell the many stories associated with this extraordinary aircraft type which served us so well for so long.’’

The Orion passes by New Zealand's Wye River
The Orion passes by New Zealand's Wye River AFMNZ

Built by Lockheed in Burbank California in 1966, NZ4203 entered service with the RNZAF in April 1967. In 2021 it became the first of the type to retire from service when it flew a farewell mission to land at RNZAF Base Woodbourne. Darren said the Orion fleet had given a huge amount of service over 54 years and NZ4203 deserved a happy retirement at the museum where it will be preserved as the only surviving RNZAF example of the type, as it was for its last mission – minus any sensitive military equipment.

NZ4203 passing throughMurchison
NZ4203 passing throughMurchison AFMNZ
Onlookers gather as the Orion passes through Murchison
Onlookers gather as the Orion passes through Murchison AFMNZ

“NZ4203 was the first RNZAF Orion to land in Antarctica back in 2006. It has also taken part in numerous humanitarian and search and rescue missions and has been a lifesaver for many people who have found themselves needing help a long way from home.’’

An earlier view of NZ4203 on Antarctic duty
An earlier view of NZ4203 on Antarctic duty AFMNZ

NZ4203 served with No 5 Squadron at RNZAF Base Whenuapai and was regularly upgraded to extend its lifespan, receiving new avionics and radio systems in the 1980s and new wings in the 1990s. The aircraft was decommissioned at RNZAF Base Woodbourne in Blenheim. It is being stored in the museum’s reserve collection hangar until an exhibition space large enough to house it can be built. NZ4203 is 36m long, has a wingspan of just over 30m, and its tail stands 10.3m tall.

The Orion is transported through NZ's Springs Junction
The Orion is transported through NZ's Springs Junction AFMNZ

“Our current exhibition halls are too small to accommodate it, so we’re busy working on plans for a new space to exhibit it,’’ Mr Hammond said. “We will keep everyone posted on our plans as they progress.’’

The Air Force Museum of New Zealand has more than 30 aircraft and over a million artefacts in its collection. The Christchurch museum attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year and is free to the public. It includes a memorial to the more than 4,600 Kiwis who have died while serving with the RNZAF or other air forces since 1915.

NZ4203 has been donated to the museum by the RNZAF. The Orions have been replaced by a fleet of four Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft.

NZ4203 in the museum hangar
NZ4203 in the museum hangar AFMNZ