Military aviation in New Zealand extends back to 1912 when two New Zealand Army Staff officers were sent to the UK to learn the science of flying. In 1913 the Imperial Air Fleet Committee in London presented a Bleriot monoplane named "Britannia" to New Zealand as the nucleus of a flying corps. It was flown briefly in New Zealand, and was returned to the United Kingdom (UK) in late 1914.
During World War I, two commercial New Zealand flying schools, part funded by the British Government, trained 250 pilots for service with the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force. In July 1915 the first military trained New Zealand pilot, William Burns was killed on operations in Mesopotamia.

During this war, William Rhodes-Moorhouse, an Englishman with New Zealand parents, won the VC for action over France on 26 April 1915.Other New Zealand airmen received a range of decorations for gallantry in the air.

Following WWI the New Zealand Government sought advice from Britain on what would be required for an Air Force in New Zealand. In 1919 Colonel Bettington, an air adviser from Britain, recommended the establishment of a Permanent Air Force of 79 officers, 299 airmen, and a Territorial Force of 174 officers and 1060 airmen. Faced with the struggle to right the country's economy after four years of war, the New Zealand Government did not act on the report, but accepted several free ex-military aircraft from Britain, which were passed to commercial companies. An Air Board was established in 1920 to administer aviation in New Zealand.

The civilian flying schools in New Zealand succumbed to the economic downturn of the early 1920s, and conscious of a need to carry out refresher training for the small cadre of military pilots, the Government established on 14 June 1923 'The New Zealand Air Force' (a territorial force) with 102 officers and the 'New Zealand Permanent Air Force' (NZPAF) with a strength of four officers and two other ranks. Aeroplanes used by the two organisations were some of those gifted in 1919.

Throughout the late 1920s, refresher training was carried out at Wigram (Christchurch). A new maritime Air Station was formed at Hobsonville (Auckland) in 1928 and seaplanes were ordered. The first warlike operation by the New Zealand Permanent Air Force took place in 1930 when a Moth Seaplane (No.995), with pilot Flight Lieutenant Sidney Wallingford and two ground crew, was carried to Samoa on HMS Dunedin to help suppress a rebel uprising.

The Territorial Air Force (TAF) was formally raised in 1930 with four regionally based squadrons, at Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. However, the world depression of the early 1930s prevented the purchase of any equipment for the squadrons.

The depression years also severely curtailed Defence spending and little progress in expanding the NZPAF with personnel, bases or equipment occurred. In 1934 King George VI gave permission for the NZPAF to adopt the title Royal New Zealand Air Force. The deteriorating political situation in Europe in the mid 1930s saw an expansion of the RAF, and as New Zealand's Defence policies were aligned with those of Britain, the incoming New Zealand Labour Government of 1935 conducted a review of Defence Policy and approved increases in Defence spending. The Air Force share of this increase saw the expansion of Wigram, ordering of modern Vildebeeste torpedo bombers, and the increase in personnel by March 1936 to 20 officers and 107 airmen. The TAF strength was now 74 officers.

The Government commissioned a review of air defence requirements in 1936 and Englishman Wing Commander the Hon. Ralph A. Cochrane, AFC RAF, was seconded from Britain. Cochrane recommended an Air Force as a separate arm of the Defence Force comprising one Army co-operation and two medium bomber squadrons for local defence, the defence of shipping routes and the security of the United Kingdom.

Cochrane's report was agreed by Government and on passing of the Air Force Act on 1 April 1937, he was asked to remain in New Zealand as the first RNZAF Chief of Air Staff, in the rank of Group Captain. At the same time the Air Department Act came into force, establishing a body responsible for overseeing military and civil aviation interests in New Zealand.

During the period 1937 - 1939, the RNZAF underwent a rapid expansion, with new bases, aircraft and recruiting of personnel. The TAF squadrons were expanded and second-hand Baffin aircraft began delivery in March 1938. An order for 30 new Wellington bombers was placed in 1938, and land at Whenuapai and Ohakea purchased for establishment of new bases for them.

During the Pacific Defence Conference at Wellington, April 1939, the British and New Zealand Governments agreed, that in addition to providing personnel for local defence, the RNZAF's role in the event of a European war would be to provide trained aircrew to the RAF under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). New elementary flying schools and aeroplanes were to be established in NZ with a proposed annual output of 700 pilots and 730 observers and air gunners. The UK would provide training aircraft. This plan was formalised on 17 December 1939. Another flying school was established at Woodbourne in 1939, and an aircraft factory to assemble Tiger Moth trainers was completed in Wellington by early 1940.

When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel strength was 91 officers, 665 airmen in the Regular Force and 79 officers and 325 airmen in the Territorials. There 102 aircraft, mostly second-hand Baffins and Gordons, the only new aircraft were five Oxfords and nine Vildebeests.

The first year of World War II saw accelerated expansion of the RNZAF, with new flying training schools established at Taieri, Harewood, New Plymouth and Whenuapai and an air gunners' and observers' school at Ohakea. An Initial Training School was set up at Rongotai, later moving to Levin. Flying obsolete Vildebeests, Vincents and Baffins, three of the four territorial squadrons were mobilised and positioned to patrol the approaches to Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton harbours.
The 30 Wellingtons awaiting delivery in the UK with their New Zealand air and groundcrews were offered to the Royal Air Force and became No.75 (NZ) Squadron. In mid 1940, German successes led to a review and expansion of the BCATP which continued at full pace until mid 1944, then winding up to finish in March 1945. Of the 131,553-aircrew graduates, 7002 were New Zealanders.

Graduates of the BCATP and others who were trained in New Zealand and proceeded direct to the RAF, served with distinction in all theatres of the war. Among them three air VCs to New Zealanders - Sergeant James Ward, Squadron Leader Leonard Trent and Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg. Many New Zealanders served in the seven "New Zealand" RAF Squadrons Nos 485 - 490, established under Article XV of the BCATP Agreement, to ensure a continued linkage of airmen with the nations that formed the British Commonwealth. The deeds of the New Zealanders in service with the RAF are well recorded in books and other material on the air war in WWII.

On the home front in 1940, the threat from German surface raiders and the increasing prospect of further military action by Japan resulted in strong pleas from the New Zealand Government for modern aircraft to defend the country. The British Government agreed to release Hudson bombers, which began arriving in mid 1941. To meet New Zealand's responsibility for reconnaissance and protection of the Fijian Islands, four worn-out Singapore Flying Boats were gifted to the RNZAF from RAF stocks at Singapore, shortly before the Japanese entered the war on 7 December 1941.

To overcome a shortage of men for New Zealand duties, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was established during 1941. Over 4700 WAAFs served in the RNZAF during WWII.

On 8 December 1941, the RNZAF had 641 aircraft, the majority for training. Only the 36 Hudsons could be called modern. In early 1942, the threat of a Japanese invasion became more real and all available aircraft were allotted to shadow defence squadrons under the Forces Available For Anti-Invasion (FAFAI) scheme. Plans for arming Tiger Moth biplane trainers and other second line aircraft were put into action

During the hectic struggle against the invading Japanese in Malaya and Singapore in 1941-42, the RNZAF was represented by No.488 Squadron RAF and the RNZAF's Aerodrome Construction Unit in Malaya and Singapore, and later in Java. Other New Zealand airmen served in Burma and India.
Following further strenuous pleas to the British and United States Governments for aircraft to defend New Zealand, Kittyhawk fighters began arriving in March 1942, and New Zealand based fighter squadrons were formed. The first RNZAF squadron to engage the Japanese in direct combat was No.3 Squadron [Hudsons], which moved to Henderson Field at Guadalcanal in November 1942. It was joined in April 1943 by No.15 Squadron [Kittyhawks], who had completed  their operational training with Kittyhawks taken over from the USAAF in Tonga.

Until 1945 the RNZAF did not act in the Pacific as a strategic or tactical air force with a specific task to perform. Its role was to provide combat squadrons to support US operations in removing Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands. Following lobbying by the New Zealand Government, the US Government agreed to the US Navy, [under whose control RNZAF squadrons would operate], providing new combat aircraft to the RNZAF. Operational squadrons of the RNZAF were progressively equipped with Corsairs, Venturas, Avengers, Dauntless Dive Bombers and Catalinas. Transport aircraft support to the South West Pacific Area of operations were with Lend-Lease Dakotas, Lodestars, converted Hudson bombers and in late 1944, four Sunderland Flying Boat transports arrived from the UK.

The first New Zealander to be appointed as CAS RNZAF was Air Vice Marshal Leonard Isitt in 1943. Isitt was to become very influential in the development of Air Force and civil aviation during the latter war years, immediately post-war and through the early 1950s.

In 1943 more squadrons were formed and moved to the South West Pacific operational area. By the end of 1943, a New Zealand Fighter Wing with supporting servicing units was established at Ondonga (New Georgia) and a Group HQ at Guadalcanal. New Zealand Fighter Wing pilots had 99 confirmed destroyed and 24 probably destroyed Japanese aircraft to their credit, the highest score reached by the fighters. Four other Japanese aircraft fell to the guns of Hudsons and Venturas, bringing the total enemy aircraft destroyed by the RNZAF in the Pacific to 103.

During 1944, the RNZAF's operations in the South West Pacific were mainly concentrated on Bougainville, with strikes against Japanese forces there, and at their major base at Rabaul [New Britain]. Fighter sweeps and escorting of Allied bombers was the main task of the New Zealand Fighter Wing. The Bomber Reconnaissance squadrons patrolled the sea lanes and coastal shores of Japanese held islands, and carried out bombing raids on Japanese installations.

In early 1944, the Japanese withdrew most of their Navy and Air Force aircraft to Truk. With no air opposition, Kittyhawks followed by Corsairs switched from the fighter escort role to fighter-bomber. A Dauntless and two Avenger Squadrons made a single operational tour each from Piva airfield at Bougainville. No.6 Flying Boat Squadron [Catalinas] operated over the area carrying out reconnaissance and rescue missions. The Bomber Reconnaissance squadrons with Venturas carried out raids on Japanese positions on most of the islands that make up the North Solomon's.

As US operations moved north of the Solomon Islands, the RNZAF took on a garrison role, harassing Japanese ground forces trapped on the various islands. Support facilities were expanded for the RNZAF operations including repair depots and aircraft assembly units. In early 1945, agreement was reached with the US and Australian Governments for the RNZAF to take part in operations in Borneo with the Australians or in the Philippines with the US. However, both of these commands were using US Air Force combat aircraft types, so the RNZAF would need to re-equip to be compatible. Mustang fighters were ordered to form new fighter squadrons, and while 30 were delivered, the war ended before they could be brought into service.

On VJ Day the RNZAF had more than 7000 personnel stationed throughout the Solomon Islands from Espiritu Santo to Los Negros. The priority task was to return these personnel and the equipment to New Zealand, which was finally achieved in early 1946.

From 3 September 1939 to 15 August 1945, 3,687 RNZAF personnel died on active service, the majority in Bomber Command squadrons of the RAF. The RNZAF had grown from a small pre-war force to 42,000 in June 1944, and shrunk to 7,154 by March 1946. The aircraft fleet had reached a peak of 1,336 by the end of 1944. Twenty four RNZAF squadrons had seen service in the Pacific.

Throughout the 1946 - 1949 period, the Air Force struggled to adjust to the new era of peace. With almost no personnel resources, it had to maintain No.14 Squadron (Corsairs) in Japan, and decide on the future direction for the Air Force. In accordance with Government policy a move back to British aircraft began in 1946 with the delivery of second-hand Mosquitoes. Most of the wartime American aircraft were placed in storage to be scrapped. Several aircrews were seconded to the RAF to assist with the Berlin Airlift during 1948 - 49.

The RNZAF was called to assist with internal and external commercial airline operations. Using Dakotas and Lodestars of No.40 Squadron, these operations were absorbed by the New Zealand National Airways Corporation in 1947, which was formed mainly with personnel and aircraft of No.40 Squadron RNZAF.

In 1949, the rising threat of communism in Europe, the Far East (Malaya), shortly followed by the outbreak of the Korean War, led to the recreation of the Territorial Air Force, compulsory military training, and a wide ranging re-equipment programme. The new aircraft included Vampire jets, Hastings and Freighter transports, Sunderland flying boats and Devon trainers.

New Zealand's Defence Policy of the 1950s was tied to the protection of the UK and Commonwealth interests. To this end the RNZAF provided a Dakota detachment to Malaya in 1949, and in 1952, equipped with leased Vampires, No.14 Squadron moved from Ohakea to Cyprus as part of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve. In 1955, a change in Defence policy to one which looked at the Far East as the forward line of defence, saw No.14 Squadron moved to Tengah (Singapore) and re-equip with leased Venom fighter bombers. No.41 Squadron with Freighters established itself at Changi (Singapore) the same year. No.14 was replaced by No.75 squadron flying leased Canberras in 1958. The three RNZAF squadrons took part in Operation FIREDOG, the RAF's air campaign against communist terrorists in Malaya (1948 - 1960).

In New Zealand the four Territorial squadrons, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago, were equipped with Tiger Moths, Harvards, and the 30 Mustangs re-activated from storage since the end of WWII. Continually faced with a shortage of air and ground crews, the TAF was finally disbanded in 1957.

To provide support to the British lead Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the RNZAF formed the Antarctic Flight in 1956. The Flight took a Beaver and Auster to Antarctica in the summer of 1956/57 to support the New Zealand contribution to the expedition. These annual summer operations continued until 1960. The RNZAF recommenced its association with the Antarctic in 1965 when a Hercules of No.40 Squadron made the first of what was to become annual flights, to the continent during the summer months from November - February each year..

Until 1966, post-war maritime operations for the RNZAF were based at Fiji. With Catalinas, then Sunderlands, No.5 Squadron provided surveillance and reconnaissance of a wide span of the South Pacific Ocean. Participation in allied maritime exercises from Hong Kong , the Philippines, Singapore and down to New Zealand, plus medical evacuation and community assistance tasks around the South Pacific were the squadron's forte. From 1952-57 No.6 Flying Boat Squadron operated as a Territorial Unit at Hobsonville, flying Catalinas and later Sunderlands.

A major review of Defence Policy in 1961 re-oriented New Zealand's Defence efforts based on the South Pacific, support to Commonwealth strategic reserve forces in South East Asia, and meeting commitments to the allied treaties of ANZUS and SEATO.

The CAS, Air Vice-Marshal Ian Morrison in 1962 successfully lobbied for replacement of obsolete operational aircraft, which was to see a major shift away from British aircraft to American aircraft to be more compatible with our friends and allies in the region. Hercules, and Orions were ordered along with the Air Forces first helicopters Iroquois and Sioux. The new fleet began arriving during 1965.
In 1964, No.14 Squadron flying New Zealand owned Canberras was on a regular exercise to Singapore, when it was directed to remain in theatre as part of the British Commonwealth build-up of forces to counter Indonesian insurgency into Borneo. The Squadron finally returned to New Zealand in November 1966.

The New Zealand Government committed forces to the Vietnam War in 1965. No.40 Squadron Hercules airlifted NZ troops to South Vietnam, and No.41 Squadron Freighters began regular re-supply missions from Singapore. In 1967 the first RNZAF helicopter pilots commenced duties with No.9 RAAF Squadron in Vietnam. Other pilots served with US Air Force squadrons as Forward Air Controllers, bringing a total of thirty pilots who served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971.

In 1970 the Air Force took delivery of the Skyhawk attack aircraft which are still in service today. The ageing Vampires were replaced by Strikemaster jet trainers in 1972 and Iroquois helicopters joined No.41 Squadron at Singapore. To provide a medium range transport squadron in New Zealand, No.1 Squadron was reactivated at Whenuapai and equipped with Freighters. Throughout the 1970s more aircraft changes continued with wartime Harvard trainers replaced by New Zealand built Airtrainers, Freighters, Dakotas and communications Devons with second-hand Andovers (1977).

Another major change during this decade was the integration of the Women's Royal New Zealand Air Force into the Air Force in 1977, removing most restrictions on their employment and career opportunities, with the exception of some aircrew branches. These restrictions were lifted in 1987. In 1980, the training Devons were replaced with second-hand Air New Zealand Friendships.

The Labour Government's decision in 1984 for NZ to become a nuclear-free zone, saw the RNZAF excluded from participation in US and British sponsored exercises, and a cooling of Defence relations with several other friends and allies.

This had a dramatic effect on the efficiencies of the Air Force's combat squadrons. With the lack of opportunities to practice operations skills, it became extremely difficult to maintain pace with the Air Forces we had traditionally worked with.

In 1981 two Boeing 727 jet transports were purchased, to support the growing worldwide transport commitments of the Air Force. During the late 1980s the Government increased the New Zealand Defence Force participation in peacekeeping duties, and by the end of the decade the RNZAF had been represented in the Sinai (Multi Force of Observers), operating leased helicopters 1982 - 1986, and with an Andover Detachment in Iran 1988 - 1990 (United Nations International Military Observer Group).

In the mid 1980s the Orions were upgraded, a sixth Orion purchased and 10 second-hand Skyhawks purchased from the RAN (1984). No.2 Squadron was reactivated at Ohakea and equipped with these Skyhawks. No.1 Squadron was disbanded and its Andovers taken over by No.42 Squadron which had relocated to Whenuapai. A major upgrade of the Skyhawk avionics systems was commenced in 1988.

In 1987 the Air Force celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and a museum opened at Wigram to permanently record and display the progress of the RNZAF. The last permanent presence in Singapore No.141 Flight (Iroquois) came home in 1989. A comprehensive review of Defence commenced in 1988 was to have a major impact on the Service in the 1990s

The 1990s has seen the most dramatic changes in the post WWII history of the RNZAF. Faced with New Zealand Government policies to reduce public spending and a further review of Defence Strategy in 1991, the Air Force underwent radical surgery. The Air Force Stores Depot at Te Rapa was closed in 1992, Flying Training moved from Wigram to Ohakea in 1993 and bases at Wigram and Shelly Bay were closed in 1995. In the drive for better efficiencies, commercialisation of non-core activities commenced in 1992 and continues today.

During the early 1990s, the personnel strength of the Service fell from the traditional 4200, which had been maintained from the 1950s - 1970s to the current level of around 3500. An increasing number of jobs within the Air Force have been civilianised.

Despite the reduction in budget and personnel, external operations by the Air Force have expanded. In 1990/91 two Hercules and personnel were deployed to the Gulf War where they operated as part of a composite RAF Hercules squadron.

In 1991 No.2 Squadron (Skyhawks) moved to Nowra NSW, Australia where it provides training for the RAN and conversion of RNZAF Skyhawk pilots. In 1993, an Andover detachment of three aircraft and personnel from No.42 Squadron spent five months in Somalia, as New Zealand's contribution to the Unified Task Force. Humanitarian airlifts were conducted by Hercules and Boeing aircraft of No.40 Squadron in the Middle East, and Rwanda. No.40 Squadron also provided air transport support to the NZ Army contingent in Bosnia during 1994 - 1996.

Re-shaping and further contractions in the search for better efficiencies continued during 1997 and 1998.

The New Zealand Government agreed, in early November 1997 to provide a Truce Monitoring Group (TMG) to the war-torn island of Bougainville.

To meet this task a New Zealand Defence Force contingent of Navy, Army and Air Force elements was raised and dispatched to Bougainville.

The RNZAF Operation Belisi required Hercules and crews of No.40 Squadron to provide a daily flight from New Zealand to Bougainville for the setting up phase (23 flights using three aircraft and crews), preparation and airlift of three Iroquois helicopters and Air Force helicopter crews and support personnel.

A Helicopter Force Element formed by a detachment of three Iroquois and personnel of No.3 Squadron served in Bougainville from December 1997 - April 1998. The Iroquois were painted in a highly visible 'Orange Roughie Red' colour scheme prior to moving to Bougainville.

From January 1998, detachment personnel and some of the Iroquois were rotated. In February 1998 the force was reduced to 35 personnel. Following the signing of the peace agreement in Bougainville late April 1998, the TMG was withdrawn. The three Iroquois and personnel arrived back in New Zealand 1-2 May 1998. Seven RNZAF personnel are currently in Bougainville assisting the Australian lead Peacekeeping Monitoring Group (PMG) which replaced the TMG.

The last year of the 20th century saw the RNZAF established around the three New Zealand bases - Auckland, Ohakea, and Woodbourne, the Air Staff at Wellington, and No.2 Squadron at Nowra (Australia).

The command of the RNZAF changed on 25 February 1999 when Air Commodore Donald Hamilton became Chief of Air Staff in the rank of Air Vice-Marshal, and the previous Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Carey Adamson was promoted to Air Marshal in the appointment of Chief of Defence Force.

During 1999, the major Air Force projects of Kestrel and Sirius (Orion upgrades) progressed, as did the F-16 introduction programme.  The last of the 13 leased CT4E Airtrainers were delivered in early June.  The CT-4B Airtrainers were disposed of to Pacific Aerospace Company Limited.  
Elements of the RNZAF participated in several international exercises and competitions during the year.

RNZAF Base Auckland, switched to commercial catering in July, the last base to move to commercial contractors for this function.

In mid September,  two Hercules of No.40 Squadron joined RAAF Hercules flying between Darwin and Dili (East Timor) evacuating UNAMET and Timorese following the outbreak of violence after the independence referendum.  In late September a detachment of six Iroquois and 140 air force personnel were committed to Dili as part of the multi-national military force INTERFET. The Iroquois began operations on 1 October 1999. In mid December the Iroquois detachment moved from Dili to Suai on the western coat of East Timor.
The manpower strength of the RNZAF, including uniformed and civilian personnel remained around 3,500.

2000 - 2001
On 20 March 2000 the Prime Minister announced that the government would not proceed with the F-16 Deal.  In June 2000 a government review of the future of the Air Combat Force was commenced.

On 8 May 2001 the Government announced that as a result of the review of capabilities and the Defence funding strategies, the Air Combat Force would be disbanded.

Operational activities of Air Combat Force Skyhawks of No.75 Squadron continued in a limited operational capability until the November 2001. They deployed for Five Power Defence Arrangement exercises.  No.2 Squadron Skyhawks, based at Nowra in New South Wales (Australia) continued to provide air defence training to the Australian Defence Force until the November 2001.

No.5 Squadron Orions of the Maritime Patrol Force will be given a limited sensor and processing upgrade. They continued with regular surveillance patrols; exercising, both in New Zealand and internationally; and providing oceanic search and rescue cover.

Air transport support, internally and overseas, was provided to the NZDF by the Hercules and Boeings of No.40 Squadron and Iroquois helicopters of No. 3 Squadron.

In addition RNZAF air transport support to the New Zealand military commitment in East Timor continued, with around 46 personnel in theatre with five Iroquois helicopters of No.3 Squadron, based at Suai on the South coast of East Timor.  The helicopters provided support to the New Zealand infantry battalion based in Suai province.  No.40 Squadron Hercules and Boeings provided regular re-supply flights to and from East Timor.  The New Zealand contingent is now part of the United Nations Force (UNTAET)

In July 2001 elements of the RNZAF's Air Command were integrated into the new, New Zealand Defence Force Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) located at Trentham Army Base near Wellington.
The Air Combat Force comprising, Nos 2, 14, and 75 Squadrons was officially disbanded on 13 December 2001.  As a result of these changes, a number of RNZAF personnel were discharged from service, reducing the Air Force personnel strength.

A Brief History of the RNZAF