RNZAF Base Ohakea, located 22km West of Palmerston North, is a very busy place with several major building projects taking part over the last few years. It opened in September 1939 as one of two operational bases for New Zealand’s new bomber aircraft. Today RNZAF Base Ohakea has over 1,000 staff and maintains its key role as a training base and logistics hub as well as for search and rescue, VIP flight operations and a variety of other functions.
Our group was ushered into the two year old Maintenance Support building, with the first stop being the parachute area. There is a 23m tower attached which houses one of the largest parachute washing and drying facilities to be built in New Zealand to handle the cargo parachutes used in the air-dropping of supplies. The staff pack and maintain parachutes for personnel as well as the large chutes used for dropping heavy freight.
Next we visited the Composite area, where all manner of things using composite materials are repaired, replaced, or made to order using moulds. Work was also undertaken for the NZ Army, such as practice mortars and land mines, and they also make heavy armoured slabs to protect the LAV111 (light armoured vehicle) from bomb, mine or mortar attack.
We boarded the bus again and were taken to see two enthusiastic young people of the 209 Expeditionary Support team, the group who provides force protection of assets, personnel, and undertakes security patrols. They explained the training involved, and the special equipment used in case of chemical attack, and demonstrated some self defence moves.
The Sir Richard Bolt Terminal, (Air Movements Terminal) is practically brand new and was only finished in May this year. The job here is to “facilitate movement of personnel and freight out of the country and return”. Staff are currently working with the Army on training exercises. The airstrip and facilities can be used for Air NZ commercial flights in emergencies if needed. We watched through the doors as the heavy C130 Hercules plane fired up its propellers one by one as it was readied for its flight to New Plymouth.
Lunch at the Officers Mess was a little disappointing for me. Don’t get me wrong – there was nothing wrong with the self service food and drinks. But I had visions of starched white tablecloths, waiters, and officers in dress uniforms. It just goes to show how little I know about life on base.
Our last visit of the day was to the pretty little Memorial Church, the Chapel of St Mark. Built in 1873, the building started life as St Mary’s Catholic Church in Bulls. After lying empty for some years, it was moved to Ohakea in 1989, restored, repaired and given a new lease of life.
Padre Janie McPhee told us the history of these lovely building, and explained the stories behind the stained glass windows. The large Memorial Window, designed by Levin identity June Gillies, glowed with light and colour – a memorial to those who served, and those who died.
The one original window in the church was a complete surprise, as nobody knew it was there. The window was boarded up when the church arrived from Bulls, and was not found until renovations were underway.
It was a very enjoyable trip, and nice to hear some of the older men reminiscing about their earlier lives as military personnel during the war.