Pioneer Aero, Ardmore NZ, 28 March 2018


Steven Cox and Paul McSweeny run this small business which punches above its weight in rural New Zealand. During our tour of the North Island, Aviation Report were welcomed through the doors of Pioneer Aero, a company renowned for quality warbird restorations.

They run a tidy hangar with up to nine staff seen this day. The P-39 at this stage was the main project in hangar and was expected to be nearing completion by late 2018.

Projects here are scheduled to proceed at differing pace – reached in consultation with the owners, and are regularly reviewed. The aim is clearly to keep the hangar doors open and provide stable, permanent and full-time employment for a talented team of sheet metal workers and systems specialists, meaning the P-40s proceed in the background as the current project (P-39) reaches its assembly stage. This also allows owners to budget more efficiently within their means. The guys are very amenable to visits by serious enthusiasts as long as these are planned well in advance. It was nice to see the love and care being visited upon the airframes here, and great to see the many smaller items, placed in racks ready to be introduced into the airframe, many for the first time.

Current Projects


42-20341 Bell P-39Q Airacobra is a hybrid restoration to fly incorporating major components of an airframe diverted as US Defense Aid to the USSR which was recovered in 1995 from a Russian crash site. Owned by Jerry Yagen, parts of other aircraft were added – including from P-39Q-5-BE, 42-20341 which is believed to have been recovered in Papua New Guinea. Work to restore 42-20341 to fly was commenced at Precision Aerospace, Wangaratta, Victoria. The P-39Q relocated across the Tasman where restoration continues apace at Pioneer Aero. At the time of Aviation Report’s visit, the fuselage fit-out of components, many of which were rebuilt, new-old-stock, or remanufactured, was well underway. The tail group was already fitted and the aircraft – as situated on the jig, had been painted. The mainplanes were looking nearly complete with finishing touches being done on them. An Allison V-1710-85 engine is fitted. Overall, the quality of the work being done is remarkable. According to Paul, “Because of the state of both airframes, corrosion and damage wise, a considerable portion of the aircraft is new build and many parts have had to be remanufactured – there simply are not that many P-39 parts readily available on the warbird market today. (As at June 2018) it is being final assembled and prepared for CAA inspection in the next month or so”.

41-35916 P-40E (Kittyhawk Mk.1A) 41-35916 originally built for Royal Air Force Lend-Lease, was allotted ET562 and then allocated as US Defense Aid to the USSR from approximately April 1942 to the Soviet Air Force (V-VVS) as serial 1023. Salvaged from a Russian crash site, it has been under active restoration to fly for John Saunders of Blenheim, NZ, as a two-seater since February 2017. The project is now located at Ardmore. Even though the bare fuselage structure apparently has a long way to go to completion, the engine is already fitted and there are many parts spread throughout the hangar. Much progress will no doubt be seen through 2018.


41-13570 Looking somewhat more complete is the fuselage of Curtiss P-40E 41-13570 “Soviet AF Tactical number White 51”. Recorded as Curtiss-Wright 814, c/n 16786 is yet another survivor of the turmoil on the Eastern Front in 1942. Accepted by the US Army Air Corps on 23 January 42 and the same day, diverted as US Defense Aid to Russia. For lovers of combat reports, the story is found in Lend-Lease on “P-40 Recovery in Russia” by Mark Sheppard; 1 June 42 P-40E “814”, engine No 42-33729 of 20 GIAP, 14th Army was lost completely – shot down, ditched in Lake Kod Ozero, near Murmansk. Pilot Jr. Lt. A. V. Pshenev survived and returned to Soviet forces. The 20 GIAP (20 Guards Fighter Air Regiment) was part of the 14th Army under the command of the Karelian Front. The unit was based at Murmashi airfield, south of Murmansk, as part of the defence of Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula. The Luftwaffe victor could well have been Uffz. Doring (?) of 5./JG5, who shot down one P-40 in the early morning of the 1 June 1942 at 0456 CET (0556MT). The P-40E crashed on Lake Kod Ozero, a small lake near Pja Ozero in the tundra west of Murmansk. It was probably the loss of engine coolant, leading to an overheating engine, that forced the pilot to undertake an emergency landing. Jr. Lt. A. V. Pshenev decided not to try to crash-land on the unforgiving tundra, which was covered by stunted trees and large rocks. Instead he opted to put the P-40E down on one of the numerous lakes in the area. The pilot survived the crash, swam to shore, and walked back to his own lines.

The airframe, intact with mainplanes and engine was recovered from Lake Kod Ozero on 31 August 1997, lifted out by helicopter. The overall condition of the aircraft allowed analysis which confirmed the details listed earlier. It was a very good basis for a restoration. The complete hulk arrived at Sandown, Isle of Wight a year later, loaned to the Frontline Aviation Museum until sold to private owners in 2000.
As these things do happen, 41-13570 was soon heading across the Atlantic to new U.S. owners, this time however, in exchange for a recovered Burmese Spitfire. Restoration to fly commenced in 2008, in Missouri. The project changed hands in around 2015 to the aforementioned John Saunders of Blenheim (who also had 41-35916 discussed here). The aircraft arrived at Auckland in 2015, and has since been undergoing restoration to fly for a client in Europe.

Future Projects

Two Sikorsky Kingfisher floatplane trainers, both are yet to be fully assessed. they are:
Bu.Aer. 5985 an OS2U-3, to Netherlands Navy/MLD as V-8 and shipped to Netherlands East Indies (now Republic of Indonesia), but with the fall of NEI to the Japanese Imperial forces was instead diverted to Australia, in April 1942. Royal Australian Air Force A48-2 was Brought on Charge in 1942 and placed into storage August 1945. This substantial airframe, one of the best-known, survived in component form on a property in country Victoria, Australia until recovered by Pearce Dunn, operator of the now-legendary Warbirds Aviation Museum at Mildura. Twenty years on, John Bell, creator of “WhaleWorld” Museum at Albury, moved the aircraft across the Nullabor Plain to Albany, Western Australia. There, it was cosmetically restored to display condition with wartime codes JE-B. The reciprocal move back to Victoria happened in 2004 as the Kingfisher was trucked to Precision Aerospace Productions P/L where restoration to fly commenced. The registration VH-PSG (allegedly incorrectly attributed to serial A48-7) was allotted for A48-2 at this time. December 2015, ownership changed to Jerry Yagen/Fighter Factory, Virginia Beach, VA. Relocated from Wangaratta to Ardmore NZ, it remains to be fully assessed by Pioneer Aero Ltd. While a loss to Australian military history, the venerable floatplane should have – by global exposure once airworthy, a part to play in commemorating the RAAF’s history with this rather forgotten aircraft type.

The second project, identified in some references as Bu.Aer. 5982 is an OS2U Kingfisher, an incomplete restoration project shipped to Australia in 2007 by Jerry Yagen for restoration to fly at Wangaratta and relocated to Ardmore around 2014/16. For the record, Bu. Aer. 5982 went to the RAAF as A48-7, crashed and sank 7 December 1943. This is Kermit Weeks’ restoration project.

Pioneer Aero confirmed during our visit that they currently have in storage the world’s only extant DH-103 Sea Hornet (F.Mk20 TT193), the former Spartan Air Services (Canada) CF-GUO. Originally imported around 2016 as a future project, it is intended to be restored to fly, it would be a coup to see this unique aircraft fly again in NZ skies. Acknowledging themselves as “a little crazy, there is still a lot of detail to be worked through and (we) have no firm idea of time frames yet”.

Representative previous Pioneer Aero P-40 restorations

41-35927 P-40E Kittyhawk Mk. Ia
Built for RAF Lend-Lease as ET573 – US Defense Aid to the USSR.
Recovered from a crash site near Murmansk, Russia 1992, stored in Switzerland then sold to USA – Tom Wilson/ Brooks Aviation, Douglas GA.
Restoration to fly commenced in 1996 at The Curtiss Hawk factory, Griffin Ga.
To Jerry Yagen, VA. 2000, the project by this time including wings recovered from a farm at Calgary, Alberta. Partially restored, and shipped to NZ November 2000 to complete restoration at Ardmore, with its’ first flight 14 April 2003 as USAAC “108”, then registered N1941P to Gerald W. Yagen/The Fighter Factory/ Military Aviation Museum. Shipped from NZ to USA May 03, 41-35927 flies as USAAC “108”.
(Goodall quotes US Civil Aircraft Register N1941P id. as “1025″, possibly a reference to it’s Russian AF (unconfirmed) identity serial).


42-104730/ A29-448 P-40N Kittyhawk Mk. IV
c/n 28492 went to the RAAF as A29-448, first flown on 17 March 2000 registration ZK-CAG as RAAF “A29-448/GA-C” on left side, RAAF “A29-1050” on right, with the name Currawong (with artwork) on the nose.
Ownership has been Charles Darby & Garth Hogan/ Frank Parker/ Warbird Adventure Rides, Drury 20 September 2012 – current.

Aviation Report wishes to thank the lads of Pioneer Aero for hosting us “West Islanders”, during our visit and for their assistance with further enquiries.

Principal online sources (accessed June, 2018):
Geoffrey Goodall’s aviation History Site “Warbirds Directory Vol.6”
Lend-Lease on “P-40 Recovery in Russia” by Mark Sheppard
Warbirds Information Exchange

Reference books:
U.S. Military Designations and Serials since 1909, Midland Counties, 1979
Airacobra Advantage: The flying Cannon, Pictorial Histories, Rick Mitchell

Dion Makowski

A keen photographer from an early age, Dion developed a genuine interest in all things aviation. After cutting his teeth on historic aircraft restoration and dabbling in model plane building, Dion took things further with a passion for collecting 1:1 scale and helped establish an aviation metal fabrication shop. With a former museum colleague, together they formed the Clyde North Aeronautical Preservation Group in 1989. Many years later, Dion published the Aviation Historical Society's of Australia's Journal Aviation Heritage and News and is currently active on the Society's committee. Today, he concentrates on aviation photo-journalism, specialising in current ADF activities and as always, fast jets, warbirds and antique aircraft historical research, remain his core passions.

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