MOTAT: Missed Opportunities Time After Time
MOTAT, the museum specialising in New Zealand’s transport and technology history preservation, has no helicopters on display. An offer of an RNZAF Iroquois has not been taken up, despite pleas from among the MOTAT staff.
Yet again, the uneasy truce between volunteers and management at MOTAT is under great stress. The focal point this time is Bristol Freighter ZK-EPG/NZ5911 languishing at Ardmore, urgently in need of a saviour.
The Bristol Freighter is an icon in New Zealand’s aviation history, and while three remain well cared for in the South Island, none is on display in the North Island.
The type was a rare postwar British success with over 200 built despite the flood of ex-military transports. It was designed with countries like New Zealand in mind, and more than 30 came here with many more to similar challenges of terrain, weather and rough strips in Canada and Pakistan.
Although eagerly anticipated in New Zealand, the Freighter’s baptism under extreme pressure was the Berlin Airlift. With the existing Tempelhof and Gatow airfields woefully inadequate (labourers had to spread stabilising sand on to the Marsden matting between landings, which were only three minutes apart) the first Freighters (alongside USAF Fairchild C-82 Packets) were used to fly in disassembled heavy earthmoving equipment to a large area of open ground previously used for military training.
Starting on 5 August 1948, it took only 90 days before the first Douglas C-54 Skymaster landed on the new 2428m tarmac runway, the longest in Europe at the time. Today it is Berlin-Tegel Airport, the city’s major international airport.
The Freighter’s achievements in New Zealand were a little less spectacular but just as important. In both civil and military guises it became indispensible on the Cook Strait run and was for years the lifeline of the Chatham Islands, complete with a unique passenger module to improve the passenger “experience”.
Under pressure to increase tonnage across the Cook Strait, where turnaround times of an hour took up much of the day, the Cargon was born. This was initially a wheeled tray (pallet) on which cargo could be pre-loaded and weighed at the railhead. Once at the airport, cargons were wheeled along guide rails and lifted hydraulically into the cavernous hold of the Freighter, the aircraft centre of gravity already calculated.
Gone were the days of manhandling individual items into the hold while feverishly calculating weight and balance, and turnaround times dropped to eight minutes (engines running), more than doubling the tonnage each aircraft could transport in a day. The cargon developed into today’s conformal baggage or cargo container, the ubiquitous little road trains we see at every major airport today, but a New Zealand first.
The Freighter served the country’s military in three campaigns, and a Freighter was the last RNZAF aircraft out of both Saigon and Phnom Penh, carrying the ambassadors, their staffs and the last few military personnel. Many a wounded or sick serviceman has welcomed the Freighter’s noisy hold as his passage home.
The last available remaining RNZAF Bristol Freighter is now under threat at Ardmore, being on a site upon which building work starts within months. An export licence has been granted, but the owner’s preference is to keep it in New Zealand.
Now is the time for quick action but MOTAT has (for the fourth time) turned it down on grounds of cost and “lack of alignment with the strategy”, this being a museum claiming to showcase Kiwi ingenuity (the cargon and much more fit perfectly with “the strategy”) and indeed a Museum of Transport lacking any purpose-designed transport aircraft.
It is not (quite) too late, but public pressure is required. It is time for Kiwis to repay the debt they owe to this magnificent aircraft.
Minister of Defence at the time, Wayne Mapp (himself a pilot) promised MOTAT an Iroquois (not to mention a Strikemaster and Bell 47) when he officially opened the new Aviation Display Hall (ADH). By the time the Iroquois came up for disposal, rather foolishly I anticipated that would happen. The Hon Mapp had gone, of course, but a promise by a minister holds good for his successors, unless there is an overriding reason, but no effort was made by the CEO of MOTAT to hold the minister to this promise.
Only belatedly another MOTAT volunteer (who had been decorated for his service on Iroquois in Vietnam) and I made a reasoned approach, only to be immediately and curtly told, “The answer is no. Volunteers have no say in acquisitions.”
Since the management has absolutely no knowledge of aviation and its history, this is madness. A little later other voices amongst the management forced a reappraisal and an application was made. It was too late. Thus New Zealand’s Museum of Technology and Transport still has no helicopter, despite New Zealand having more helicopters and pilots per capita than any other nation.
The ADH lost many of its supporting displays when it was reorganised to utilise the new space added by the redevelopment. This led to the loss of much of interest and a sterile look, but as it was overseen by a person promoted from the Human Resources Department, can one wonder?
MOTAT 1 has been emasculated by conversion to largely a theme park for youngsters. One wonders what All Hallows Eve or face painting have to do with Transport and Technology, but they do draw in younger people. The name of the game at MOTAT now is simply one of numbers (of visitors), and since even babes in arms are counted these events help keep the numbers up.
A simple analysis of the MOTAT annual report shows that two-thirds of visitors are admitted free of charge and that entrance fees amount to only about one-eighth of the Auckland Council subsidy. The amount of subsidy per visitor is steadily rising in each annual report.
MOTAT is unusual if not unique worldwide in that an ad hoc gathering by enthusiasts of many transport engineering specialities has become a national museum of international repute, now enshrined in the MOTAT Act of 2000.
Running an organisation where a large number of volunteers, who possess an unrivalled knowledge of their subject, are subject to a salaried but uninvolved management to ensure a viable business model was never going to be easy, but it has been a spectacular failure. Surely someone must have both the business skills and interpersonal skills required to head this challenging national treasure?
For its detractors, it has become a Mountain Of Tat And Trivia, and for its ever-fewer volunteers it is a case of Missed Opportunities Time After Time. It is high time it became a Museum Of Transport And Technology once again.
MOTAT 1 has been rendered bereft of all appropriate exhibits except those impossible to move. Those that are left (such as Sir Edmund Hillary’s Antarctic tractor) are badly cared for.
The redevelopment of the Aviation Hall at MOTAT 2 is due to commence this month. One awaits the outcome with more than trepidation.
- Report and phototraphs by Jonathan Pote.
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