The team at Twenty24 are making history airworthy again.
HAVE YOU HEARD HOW NASA ONCE SPENT MILLIONS OF DOLLARS DESIGNING A BALLPOINT PEN THAT WOULD WORK IN SPACE? THE SOVIETS JUST TOOK A PENCIL.
“Ten minutes in a Spitfire and you’re out over Mount Aspiring doing loops”
The story’s probably apocryphal, but perhaps there’s some truth to it. Take a look at the fighter aircraft built by the emerging superpowers of the USA and the USSR towards the end of WWI: the all-American P-51 Mustang and the couldn’t-sound-more-Russian Lavochkin La-9. The Mustang’s undercarriage featured a complex system of hydraulic rams and sequencing valves to raise and lower the doors precisely in sync with the landing gear. The Lavochkin had an arm and a spring.
Out in a hangar at Wānaka Airport, Callum Smith and Trish Wrigley are trying to think like the Russians. Or the Americans. Or the Brits. Or anybody else who was an aircraft engineer in the 20th century. The couple run aircraft restoration company Twenty24, the go-to place for returning your rusty scrap-heap airframe to mint condition warbird glory.
“That fuel gauge there,” Callum says, pointing to the interior of an immaculate 1930s Beechcraft Staggerwing. “We never had it. We had no drawings of it. So I made it, trying to think like Mr Beech would have done. Then when another Staggerwing showed up, it had the original and it looked pretty much just like it. Yes! Nailed it!”
Step into the Twenty24 hangars, and you are confronted with a field hospital of machines, components, tools and paraphernalia. A mere whiff is enough to have plane-spotters salivating. Over there is the fuselage of a circa-1940s T6 Harvard, used as a trainer by the RNZAF. Next to that are two Staggerwing airframes from the thirties. Front and centre is a Cessna 337, in for routine maintenance. There are several other hangars decked out like real-life Airfix model kits (Callum confirms he was very much into them as a boy, but I hardly had to ask).
“Jobs need to be done with a human eye, an artistic flair, and a mind that understands imperial measurements”
These are aircraft that, for one reason or another, have seen their best years fly by. There are repairs and restoration projects, modern and antique, and there are labours of love and law (“don’t take pictures of that one, that’s still in court!”); Twenty24 do everything from engines to upholstery to sheet metalwork to avionics to paint to historical research. Once your plane is restored, they will maintain it for you too.
Callum began his career in Auckland restoring P-40 Kittyhawks, the single-seat American fighters whose bulging jowly air scoops were often adorned with two grinning rows of sharp teeth. He is chief engineer, while Trish, who also runs a playground safety auditing company and, as a mountain biker, stands ready to rip anyone’s legs off on the singletrack, takes care of the paperwork. But when you have to sand the delicate surface of a 90-year- old aircraft by hand, several times over, everybody mucks in.
What they really do is replicate the engineering of a bygone age. Twenty24 is a time-capsule where panels are handcrafted for individual aircraft and where wings might be asymmetric by half an inch. Jobs need to be done with a human eye, an artistic flair, and a mind that understands imperial measurements.
“Out in a hangar at Wānaka Airport, Callum Smith and Trish Wrigley are trying to think like the Russians”
“Callum is a unicorn, he can do all the different things,” Trish says, “but he definitely has an artistic eye for the shapes and bending the sheet metal.”
Kiwi resourcefulness and the number 8 wire mentality, not to mention an historically attractive exchange rate, have established New Zealand’s reputation for vintage aircraft restoration. Wānaka has become a particular hub thanks to Sir Tim Wallis’s enviable aviary of warbirds; Callum and Trish have been here since 2005.
“The collection attracted likeminded people, but all the people who fly here say the scenery is nuts,” Callum adds. “Ten minutes in a Spitfire and you’re out over Mount Aspiring doing loops.”
Callum and Trish have never been busier. Nostalgia is a good line of business in a time of global upheaval and change. Taking up their attention right now is the ‘Kiwi Staggerwing’, airframe 107. In its day, 107 was the only Staggerwing in New Zealand, in 1937 becoming both New Zealand’s first air ambulance and the first aircraft to fly non-stop from Auckland to Christchurch. A stint in the RNZAF and several crashes later, it ended up a vandalised collection of bits in a garage in Sydney. Callum and his team are now playing forensic archaeologists, uncovering the plane’s various modifications, repairs and bodges using research, original drawings and trial and error.
“they are restoring a tangible connection to an analogue past that feels further from our digital present with every passing day”
There’s also the ‘Antarctic Staggerwing’, a dazzling red and orange specimen-to-be that once flew to Antarctica under the command of famous aviator Richard Byrd in the US Antarctic mission of 1939. That was the ‘Eagle’; somewhere under the ice remains the Snow Cruiser, aka the ‘Turtle’, a ginormous four-wheeled aircraft carrier- cum-polar shelter that spectacularly failed to perform any of its ice-sheet-crossing duties and was eventually lost, feared stolen by those pencil-toting Russians.
All up, Twenty24 has five Staggerwings. The finest example, the fully-restored airframe 108, is a thing to make the heart fizz. Sometimes, when he’s been piecing bits of chewed up wood onto an empty airframe and needs a bit of inspiration, Callum comes down just to drink it all in. “I really like being in it,” he smiles.
“It is a dying art, restoration,” Callum explains. “Young guys coming up don’t learn these skills because they don’t need them; with modern planes, as with modern vehicles, you just buy a part and put it on. You just need bolting-on skills.”
There is something about the work of many calloused hands, and the journeys these aircraft have been on, that makes restoring them more than just rebuilding a machine. Old planes have stories. They have personalities. They have genealogies. One vintage Staggerwing owner contacted the family of a previous owner to discover a hoard of rare colour photographs of the plane. In one of them stood a little girl. A bit more digging later and that little girl, now a grandmother in her 80s, had her own collection of photographs to share too.
“The new owners wanted the paint to be as it was out of the factory, and they had these colour photos,” Callum explains. “I would mask out the stripe down the side, send it to them, they’d look at the photo and go, ‘oh I think it should be an inch down.’”
You can’t make new aircraft like they did back in the day. Then, the threat of litigation wasn’t there to stop engineers building a plane by trial-and-error for no reason other than it looked right. And say what you will about the Great Depression, it sure made labour-intensive aircraft cheap to build.
Because of this, the value of restored vintage aircraft like these is, yes, sky-rocketing. “If you go and buy an airplane now, the quality is probably gone. They’re trying to smash them out,” Callum says. “That bygone era of airplanes was about quality and making something that would do everything it was advertised to do. It was not a throwaway culture, like buying a toaster from the Warehouse today and buying another one after two weeks because it breaks.” Some owners restore aircraft as an investment. Drop a few million dollars on restoring a P-51 Mustang to mint condition and you’ll get that back when you sell it. But some people just want to fly a Mustang. Wouldn’t you?
For the rest, the restoration process provides the most fun. Callum is in that camp. There are perks to what he does (he once got to ride shotgun in a Lamborghini at an airshow while a stunt pilot flew upside down metres above his head), but his joy comes from his work. It’s a joyful thing. Callum and Trish aren’t just fixing planes; they are restoring a tangible connection to an analogue past that feels further from our digital present with every passing day. It’s a past that yearns to stretch its wings.
“Some airplanes feel like they’re fighting to fly. They are up there because they have enough horsepower to drag themselves up there,” Callum explains. “That thing, it feels like you could shut the motor off and it would still float around. Everything feels right. It’s effortless”
WORDS AND PHOTOS: RICHARD ABRAHAM
A journalist originally from Oxford, UK, Richard is in Aotearoa on hiatus from chasing the wheels of the professional peloton at events like the Tour de France.