Ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force Mustang makes maiden post-restoration flight
On 11 November at RNZAF Base Ohakea in New Zealand’s North Island, the Biggin Hill Trust’s North American P-51D Mustang NZ2423/ZK-BHT made its first flight for 66 years. Back in May 1957, the fighter completed the last ever flight of a serving Royal New Zealand Air Force Mustang when it was ferried from Ohakea to RNZAF Woodbourne, near Blenheim on the South Island, for storage.
The restoration has been masterminded by Brendon Deere — nephew of Biggin Hill wing leader and 22-victory ace Air Cdre Al Deere — at the Biggin Hill Historic Aircraft Centre facility at Ohakea. The fuselage and systems were restored in-house there, while the wings were rebuilt by Odegaard Wings in North Dakota, the Packard V-1650-7 Merlin was restored by Vintage V-12s at Tehachapi, California, and the propeller was overhauled by Maxwell Aircraft Service in Minnesota.
Originally built at the North American plant at Inglewood, California with the US Army Air Forces serial 45-11513, the machine arrived at the Aircraft Assembly Depot at Hobsonville on 27 August 1945, and was put into storage there during early 1946. It stayed cocooned at several locations before joining No 2 (Wellington) Territorial Air Force Squadron in July 1954.
Moving in October 1955 to No 42 Squadron at Ohakea, it saw service on fighter affiliation, continuation flying and target-towing duties prior to being retired and flown to Woodbourne on 30 May 1957. The following May it was sold by tender to one Bill Ruffell of Blenheim, and then moved on to John Smith at Mapua, just west of Nelson in 1964.
Brendon Deere takes up the story: “After the aircraft had been purchased by John Smith, it was stored on his property at Mapua from 1964 until 2020. Apart from the wings having been cut off, the aircraft was essentially complete and a ‘time capsule’ from when it was built in July 1945. The wings were stored with the aircraft in John Smith’s barn near Nelson and virtually everything for the aircraft was with it.”
Aircraft collector John Smith — who also saved, among other types, de Havilland Mosquito FBVI NZ2336, which is now preserved in ground-running condition at Omaka — died at the age of 84 in August 2019, and his aircraft were gradually moved on. Brendon continues, “The Mustang arrived at RNZAF Ohakea in August 2020 and has been restored over the past three years in our facility there. Restoration went quite smoothly, as along with the aircraft we received a large stock of parts which had been recovered by John Smith along with the aircraft. We are still sorting through these. We made the decision to break the project up into logical blocks and outsource where it seemed sensible. We managed to keep most of the momentum up during the various COVID lockdowns in New Zealand, and also with shipping issues caused by international COVID-triggered shipping delays.
“The first flight went very well and the pilot, Sean Perrett, reported the aircraft was stable and flew well. In the 24-minute first flight he was able to test stall speeds and general handling above the airfield at RNZAF Base Ohakea.”
On 23 November, NZ2423 made its second and third test flights. Brendon says, “We were able to get airspace in one of the RNZAF training areas and Sean was able to put the aircraft through a sequence of manoeuvres. The third test flight was nearly an hour and tested a variety of power settings within the aircraft’s performance envelope. The Mustang has now flown 1.6 hours and we are very pleased with its performance.
“NZ2423 was one of 370 Mustangs ordered by the RNZAF to replace its Corsairs, but only 30 were delivered by the war’s end and these went straight into storage until 1952. NZ2423 was the last of the RNZAF Mustangs to go into service and the last to finish its service in May 1957 with just 261 hours on the clock. The original factory-fitted engine was still installed in the aircraft and has been rebuilt.”
Once test-flying is completed, the Mustang will join the Biggin Hill Trust’s fleet, alongside airworthy Supermarine Spitfire LFIX PV270/ZK-SPI, which wears the markings of one of Al Deere’s Spitfires, and Grumman TBM-3E Avenger BuNo 91110/ZK-TBE.