Gene de Marco and his team of specialised craftsmen and restorers are keeping the memory of World War One aircraft alive.

The Wairarapa is a long way from the Upper Somme Valley in France. But this spring a connection will be made between the two regions when Gene de Marco, general manager and chief pilot of The Vintage Aviator Ltd (TVAL) which has a manufacturing workshop in Wellington, as well a collection of rare WWI aircraft based at Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome will take part in New Zealand’s commemoration of The Battle of the Somme.

Invited by of the New Zealand government, Gene and fellow pilot Keith Skilling will do a fly-past over the area of Albert in a reproduction BE2 and Albatros aircraft. It’s an amazing opportunity for TVAL to showcase the workmanship, craftsmanship and dedication needed to restore and accurately replicate the original design of historic aircraft.

“It’s an honour to be selected to participate in these commemorations, but this time the event is more fitting as we’ll be representing New Zealand. To have such a vast collection of airworthy aircraft  is also fantastic, says Gene.

The commemoration is just one of many global events he has flown in - not surprising when you learn he was described by Aeroplane magazine as “the most experienced pilot of First World War aircraft ever”.

Gene grew up in Long Island, New York, an area with a rich aviation history. His father worked for Pan American World Airways and he was always fascinated with flight. At 16, Gene began flying lessons and on gaining his license started to tinker with rotary engines. He also helped out at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York, a “living museum” of antique aviation, flying a variety of WWI aircraft and mastering their quirks.

“I’ve always said each plane has its own personality, which is why I like flying aircraft from this period, but they do require respect and a lot of concentration,” he says. “They are very different from modern planes in that they have no brakes, no tail wheel and just a tail skid, so on the ground they are hard to manage. They also have engines that are very different from modern aircraft powerplants which often need to be mastered before even thinking about getting it into the air.”

The chance to live and work in New Zealand came about through two unrelated events.

The first was the September 11th terror attack which changed flying forever, and the second was an invitation from Kiwi film director Sir Peter Jackson to fly a replica Sopwith Camel, intended for the movie King Kong, in Marlborough. That flight was to be the start of a long partnership between the pair who share an interest in WWI aircraft.

Gene talked Sir Peter into allowing him to set up a company that builds aircraft the way they were originally designed. And the rest they say is history. TVAL now employs 50 staff in Wellington and produce aircraft for private collectors and for collections in New Zealand and overseas.

Visitors to the Wairarapa can view the collection three ways: a guided tour through the TVAL hangar at Hood Aerodrome; in the air at one of TVAL’s flying weekends held monthly over the summer or during February’s Wings Over Wairarapa Air Festival.

“When we bring people through, we talk to them about the airplanes and it’s not always about the performance, how high they go, how fast they go or how long they stay up. It’s about the stories of these young men, young kids who flew planes like this. The war was fought 12 months out of the year and at tremendous altitude. Sometimes these airplanes climbed 15,000 to 20,000 feet and it’s bitterly cold up there,” says Gene.

“We explain how every last little bit (of gear) was developed for a reason. For example why the pilots wore scarves. Sure, it was romantic – it might have been given to a pilot by a loved one - but practically, when you’re wearing these big leather jackets that come up to protect you from the cold and when you’re flying a fighter plane, you’re always looking around to see the enemy. So wearing a nice silk scarf prevented chaffing around the neck. Another reason is these planes had a rotary engine, whereby the oil got mixed with the fuel and spewed out of the plane at 12 pints an hour, so everything got covered in oil droplets. The scarf was a great way to clean your goggles. It looked fantastic, but really served a purpose.”

Those wanting a “once in a lifetime experience” are also in luck. TVAL is seeking CAA part 115 approval, meaning they can offer paying members of the public rides in a P-40 Kittyhawk or original RAF BE.2 - an experience not found anywhere else in the world.