After a decade in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, John Lamont enjoyed a distinguished career as a commercial pilot before retiring to Wānaka. Throughout those years, however, John always had a huge passion for flying classic Warbirds – in fact, he has flown at every Warbirds Over Wānaka airshow since its inception in 1988.
We sat down with John to talk the airshow, flying some of the most epic aircraft out there and what brings him back to the skies time and time again.
LWT: You’ve flown more types of Warbirds than most and recently had the opportunity to fly a beautifully restored WWII Spitfire, how does it feel to be the first person to fly this aircraft in many decades?
JL: Over the years, I’ve been asked to test-fly various restored warbirds, such as Kittyhawks. They asked me to do this one and of course, it was a great opportunity.
The thing is, these airplanes are rebuilt – there’s nothing particularly new about them, in the sense that, their specific characteristics are already known. This Spitfire had been completely restored and refurbished – looked like it had just come out of the factory! But having said that, there’s always little things that need adjustments or are not quite right, so you sometimes expect the odd thing. But generally speaking, there’s not too many surprises.
LWT: So, in that sense, you must have a lot of faith in the engineers who restore these aircraft?
JL: Oh, these guys are the best in the world for what they’re doing.
LWT: What attracts you to flying these older aircraft?
JL: Well, two things. They’re amazing pieces of machinery. They’re the peak of piston engine performance – as the development of piston engines kind of stopped with the coming of jet engines.
The other side of it is the history. The opportunity to fly them is so special. And as far as the Airshow is concerned, it’s great for people to see them, because these aircraft tell a story.
LWT: Is flying one kind of like aviation’s version of driving a classic car?
JL: Absolutely. Even more so probably.
LWT: Flying by yourself and flying in an airshow – there has to be a huge difference between the two for you?
JL: Well, there is a real difference and there’s a system in place to train people to do display flying. Because you are performing in front of people and that can definitely have an effect on your brain. You have to have something called a Low-Level Display Authorization and that is all specially approved.
The thing is, you’re not really showing how skilled you are – because most people won’t understand those nuances. What you’re really showing is the aircraft itself. But having said that, you need skills to do that – many of which I learned during my time in the military. Formation flying, formation aerobatics, things like that.
LWT: Is flying in front of an audience nerve-wracking?
JML: I wouldn’t say nerve-wracking. The first thing you want to do is be safe. The next thing is positioning the aircraft through each manoeuvre so that it’s in front of the crowd. There’s quite a lot of training and practice that goes into it, so that when you go out and do it, you’re not ad libbing – it’s a routine. And it’s very exciting. People appreciate it. You taxi in afterwards and they’re all clapping and laughing – it’s quite nice.
LWT: Do you have a favourite aircraft that you like to fly?
JL: It would have to be the Spitfire. But several others are right up there.
LWT: Why do you keep coming back to Warbirds Over Wānaka? What makes it so special?
JL: A couple things. I had some close involvement with Tim Wallis and his aircraft collection in the 80s, so I got into running and designing the flying program. So that went on, airshow after airshow.
I always thought the airshow was a great opportunity and I appreciated it and it was nice to give something back.
But also – I found it difficult to find someone to replace me! But I’ve really enjoyed working with the crew at Warbirds, they’re great. Long may it continue.
Warbirds Over Wānaka is happening April 15-17, 2022 with ticket sales on now.
A range of ticket options are available from General Admission all the way to the limited Titanium luxury pass. For more information and to purchase entry, visit Warbirds Over Wānaka’s official website.