Royal New Zealand Air Force

Page 3 – Overview: 1946-2012

The Cold War

As New Zealand’s post-war air force faced up to the challenges of peacetime cutbacks, the onset of the Cold War in Europe led to a new focus for the RNZAF. Aircrews were provided for the Berlin airlift in 1948–1949, while a squadron of Vampire jet fighters was based in Cyprus from 1952 to 1955 as part of New Zealand’s contribution to Commonwealth defence plans for a possible war against the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1950s, New Zealand’s military commitment had switched to South-east Asia.  Three RNZAF squadrons operated against communist guerilla forces during the Malayan Emergency. Between 1955 and 1958 Vampires and Venom fighter-bombers of No. 14 Squadron flew 115 strike missions against guerilla targets – the first RNZAF combat operations since the Second World War. They were replaced by No. 75 Squadron (Canberras), while No. 41 Squadron (Bristol Freighters) dropped supplies to anti-guerilla forces.

The 1960s saw major changes to the RNZAF’s fleet. Under the guidance of the Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal I.G. Morrison, the air force was re-equipped with American-made aircraft – P-3 Orions, C-130 Hercules, Bell UH-1 Iroquois and Bell 47G Sioux helicopters, and in 1970 A4 Skyhawks. They arrived just as new commitments in South-East Asia began affecting the RNZAF.

From 1964 to 1966, a squadron of Canberra bombers was based in Singapore to support Commonwealth operations during Indonesia’s Confrontation with Malaysia. RNZAF units were also part of New Zealand’s contribution during the Vietnam War. The first New Zealand combat troops were airlifted to South Vietnam by No. 40 Squadron (Hercules) in 1965, and No. 41 Squadron (Bristol Freighters) flew regular resupply missions from Singapore until 1975. From 1967 New Zealand helicopter pilots served with the RAAF’s No. 9 Squadron, while others flew with USAF squadrons as Forward Air Controllers. In total, 30 RNZAF pilots served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971.

In the decade after Vietnam the RNZAF adopted a stronger maritime focus. Long-range surveillance patrols became more frequent in the waters around New Zealand as Orion crews hunted Soviet submarines and foreign fishing vessels operating illegally within New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone. At the same time RNZAF aircrews forged stronger ties with their United States and Australian counterparts through ANZUS-sponsored exercises.

Turbulent years

The 1980s and 1990s were turbulent decades for the RNZAF. New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance led to its effective exclusion from ANZUS and the severing of overt military ties with the United States. The RNZAF ceased to participate in United States-sponsored exercises and personnel exchanges at a time when New Zealand military was looking to increase its involvement in international peacekeeping missions.

Keeping the peace

The RNZAF’s first peacekeeping deployment was to the Sinai in the 1982. Since then air contingents have been sent to Iran (1988–1991), Somalia (1993), Uganda (1994), Bosnia (1994–1996), Bougainville (1997–1998), Persian Gulf (1998), East Timor (1999–2002 and 2007–2008) and the Solomon Islands (2003–2004).

A major government defence review in 1991 led to sweeping changes within the RNZAF. Budget cuts forced the closure of several bases, including Wigram, and around 700 personnel left the service as air force trades were civilianised. By 1999 the RNZAF operated from three main bases at Auckland, Ōhakea and Woodbourne, with No. 2 Squadron (Skyhawks) at Nowra in Australia. Two years later the Labour-led government made the controversial decision to disband the RNZAF combat wing (Nos 2, 14 and 75 squadrons). The mothballing of the Skyhawks and Aermacchi jet trainers led to a massive reorganisation of the air force’s resources and the departure of more personnel.

A new century

The new millennium brought with it a fresh set of the challenges for the streamlined RNZAF. New Zealand’s decision to join the ‘war on terror’ following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States led to a succession of air deployments to the Middle East during the early 2000s.

Helping at home

When the Christchurch earthquake struck on 22 February 2011, the RNZAF (along with army and navy) responded within a few hours. On the afternoon of the quake, an RNZAF Orion flew over the city taking photographs of damaged infrastructure, while a Boeing 757 arrived with search and rescue teams and medical personnel. Other RNZAF aircraft helped deploy police and medical personnel, and evacuate casualties and tourists.

Three months after the attack on the Twin Towers, two Hercules from No. 40 Squadron carried elements of the NZSAS to Pakistan following the invasion of Afghanistan. Another detachment was sent to Kyrgyzstan in 2003 to fly cargo and personnel into Afghanistan, while No. 5 Squadron Orions carried out surveillance flights around the Gulf region in 2003–2004 during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

These deployments signalled the beginning of a new operational era for the RNZAF. Humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in the Pacific and Middle East reinforced the importance of strategic and tactical air transport, maritime surveillance, and helicopter support for army and naval forces. They also exposed the limitations of the air force’s ageing equipment. In 2002 the government announced a major upgrade programme that has seen the modernisation of the Hercules and Orions and the renewal of the helicopter fleet. By 2012, modern NH-90 and A-109 helicopters had replaced the Vietnam War-era Iroquois and Sioux. The arrival of these modern aircraft, like the arrival of the Blériot in 1913, opens up a range of new possibilities for the RNZAF at home and in the wider world.

How to cite this page

'Overview: 1946-2012', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012