Paul Brennan is an obsessive aviation enthusiast. He held a private pilot licence for a while and even though it’s been a few years between flights, his head is still firmly in the air.
Over the past two years Mr Brennan has been feeding and breeding his obsession with a campaign called Bring Our Birds Home.
He wants to retrieve and restore some of New Zealand’s original international fleet and display them at the National Transport and Toy Museum in Wanaka, before these planes are lost forever.
The aircraft were retired long ago and those that didn’t end up on a scrap metal pile are dotted around the world. Some are still operating and others are just collecting dust.
Getting these aviation relics home is a big project and requires some legal advice, negotiation on a price, an interpreter and a lot of money.
The aeroplane shaped modern New Zealand society and that’s the story Mr Brennan wants to tell.
Where are the birds?
There are five so-called birds that Paul Brennan, who is best known as a radio broadcaster and newsreader at Radio New Zealand, wants to repatriate.
“I call them airframes of national significance. They’re scattered around the world, in places such as Cuba, even in the jungle of Brazil,” he says.
The oldest of the aircraft is a turbine-powered Lockheed Electra which was delivered to New Zealand in 1959 and operated by TEAL – Tasman Empire Airways Ltd.
“That plane is actually still flying, in Canada as a water bomber for fighting major fires. It’s incredible that it is still in the air,” he says.
The Electra is owned by Buffalo Airways which is better known for the Ice Pilot television series. The flight from Quebec to New Zealand would be the plane’s swansong journey.
The Electra, with registration number ZK-TEB, had a sister ship called ZK-TEA which brought The Beatles to New Zealand during their first tour – but that plane is no longer in existence.
The second plane Paul Brennan wants is a DC-8 which had the registration number ZK-NZC.
“These were a game changer as they could reach Hawaii and Los Angeles, Tokyo and Singapore whereas previously we were restricted to flying in the Pacific,” he says.
That plane, which stopped operating as a passenger jet in 1981, is now in South America – the city of Manaus in the Amazonian jungle to be specific.
“It’s been left derelict there since 2003. An airline that was operating it went belly up and walked away. It had been converted to a freighter ship.”
There’s slow legal process to getting that plane, but a confidential price has been agreed on, he says.
The first jet service
Many years ago, Wellington lawyer Richard Fletcher worked at Radio New Zealand as a journalist, and he seemed the perfect person to be introduced to Paul Brennan. They both talk a lot, so what could possibly go wrong?
“We don’t know a lot about Brazilian law so it’s been new. Our staff solicitor Lucas Davies’ mother is from Brazil so he has some local knowledge. We’ve spoken with the commercial attaché at the Brazilian embassy. A lot of what we’ve been doing is really just facilitating meetings,” he says.
The third aircraft is a Boeing 737 with the registration number ZK-NAD. It was the 66th model made – which is significant, considering over 10,000 737s have now flown off the production line.
“It operated in New Zealand from 1968 to 1986 and it flew the first jet service in our country’s history,” says Mr Fletcher.
“It changed everything as flying from Auckland to Wellington became less than one hour in duration. Courier packages could be moved quickly, it was a sophisticated system. People could ship goods from Invercargill to Auckland in the same day; pretty impressive for 50 years ago.”
The plane is in the United States and they’re negotiating a price to bring that one home.
The Bring Our Birds Home Charitable Trust was set up by Woods Fletcher and Associates and it has just bought two jet engines from the era of the planes Mr Brennan has targeted. They’ll eventually be fitted inside one of those recovered planes.
“Everything we’ve done so far, including setting up the Trust, has been pro bono. We think it’s a great cause. I think I may have even flown on the Electra back in the day. I’ve been on DC-8s, 10s and 747s so it’s hard not to want to be involved. I love these planes,” says Richard Fletcher.
“Setting up the Trust meant establishing and proving what was charitable about Bring Our Birds Home and what charitable purposes it would fulfil. So it’s about connecting New Zealanders with their aviation heritage and that makes it charitable. Bring Our Birds Home has tax exempt status so for people that want to donate large sums of money, that’s a massive gain,” says Lucas Davies.
The fourth plane is a DC-10. That aircraft model has an unfortunate history with New Zealand as one crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979, killing everyone onboard.
“New Zealand had eight of these and they flew all around the world. There is only one left and it is in Havana, Cuba. ZK-NZS was the registration. It’s been left derelict there since 2004 and we’re in talks with the Ambassador for Cuba to bring it home too,” Paul Brennan says.
Interestingly, the first plane – the Lockheed Electra – can be flown back to New Zealand, but planes two, three and four will have to be dismantled and shipped back. That’s a complicated process as it includes taking apart the fuselage, wings and engines, and there are biosecurity legal issues to be considered, such as what sorts of bugs and soil the plane has been exposed to over the years.
“I don’t know what sort of legal issues will arise out of that yet but we will have to look at what the Ministry for Primary Industries will be concerned about and what will be needed in terms of fumigation and how it will be paid for. There’s been a lot of crowdfunding so far but there’ll need to be other ways of raising funds,” Mr Fletcher says.
The fifth plane of the fleet is the last Air New Zealand-delivered 747 in existence in the world.
“They operated 11, and there’s just one left and it’s still in service, flying for a Spanish airline which is keen to retire it. This plane will also be flown back to New Zealand. That’ll be its final flight,” he says.
Fascination not a passing thing
Getting some of these planes back to New Zealand could take five years but Paul Brennan’s fascination with this slice of aviation history isn’t about to disappear anytime soon.
“I’m fascinated with the transportation of people. Early Māori made their way to New Zealand by rowing waka. This is another piece of the big story of our country. They helped build a new society, just like the waka did but in a modern day sense,” he says.
Mr Brennan estimates that over eight million people have flown on the models of the five aeroplanes he intends to bring back.
“Probably a couple of million Kiwis started their overseas experiences on the 747. It would have flown every prime minister too, and even visiting pop stars. It would be unforgivable not to capture and preserve this aviation history,” he says.
New Zealand treasures
Mr Brennan goes to great lengths to point out that these aircraft are not meaningful to any other country but New Zealand, so aside from his Trust, they’re not in demand at all.
He exudes a confidence that doesn’t look like it will diminish anytime soon.
“How can you say no to Paul? He’s a very enthusiastic man and he’s got that velvet radio voice,” says Mr Fletcher.
With a recovery project of this magnitude, sooner rather than later, more legal advice will be needed or loose ends won’t be tied, agreements won’t be signed and money won’t be exchanged.
“We just do it as it comes in. Paul will call us with all sorts of questions and we just work through them as they arrive in the landing bay,” Mr Fletcher says.
Mr Brennan has contacts in all corners of the world he hopes to rely on to help out.
“I have a team of Russians I met who dismantle artefacts around the world that will eventually be displayed in museums and they’re interested in being involved in dismantling the planes,” he says.
Netflix has also expressed interest in making a documentary series about the recovery of the planes.
“That’s an area where we’ll come back into it. There’ll be contracts involved so some entertainment law work. It’s about getting Paul Brennan a fair deal,” says Richard Fletcher.
Bring Our Birds Home has a Facebook page for people interested in learning more about the project to save, restore and retell the story of some of New Zealand’s unique aviation history. It also has a Givealittle page for donations.