Auster T7, Registration WE552 

(Service with the HKAAF 20th April 1953 to 1970 and the RHKAAF 1970 to January 1971.)

On the 17th July 1950 L.A. Leetham took Auster WE552 for her first flight at the Rearsby Auster factory.  She was then sent to 227 Squadron RAF, operational conversion unit and air observation post (OCU/AOP) school, where unfortunately she sustained Cat 4 damage when another Auster ran into the back of her, damaging her tail section.  She returned to Rearsby where repairs were completed in September 1951

Following the repairs she returned to the RAF and was assigned to the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.

At first she flew in standard RAF Trainer colours of silver with yellow bands on the wings.

In 1965 A Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force Coat of Arms is approved by Chester Herald. 
It consists of a four-bladed propeller behind a red winged dragon on a blue ground and with
the motto ‘Semper Paratus’, – literally translated from Latin as Always Prepared. 
This coat of arms was added to the port engine cowl.

   During the same year the Hong Kong government created a Register of Military Aircraft
and WE552 was allocated the designation HKG-4.

During the late sixties the livery of the HKAAF fleet was progressively changed.  It consisted of an all white airframe with RAF rondels on the wings and rondels with blue, red and green stripes on the fuselage.Seen on the right is HKG-4 with the last four cadet pilots to train in her, with their instructor. 

Left to right, Cadet Pilots Andrew Fraser, James Curtis, Gerry Higginson, John Spencer and Flt Lt Peter Adair RAF QFI.

Early Jan 1971, HKG-4 was ground-looped on Kai-Tak runway. Although damage was very minor, due largely to the lack of spares, the decision was taken to take her out of service.

HKG-4 then languished around the hangers at Kai-Tak, and eventually ended up at the FEFTS (Far East Flying Training School) used as a training aide. 

Eventually repainted orange she moved around to the HK Flying Club and was abandoned

What happened to her after this is not clear.  However it is thought that Mal Rose, a member of the Hong Kong Flying Club, shipped her to Australia for restoration.  This restoration, sadly, was not to be.

HKG-4 then went through a number of ownership changes during the following years, eventually ending up at Caboolture in Queensland with Grant Wharlick and Ralph Cusack, as a collection of parts.

Once again she was stored away and forgotten.

Several years later, WE552/HKG-4 was about to embark on another chapter in her colourful life!   Anthony Galbraith and family, New Zealanders, came to learn of the existence of a largely unknown Auster project in Australia.  Being particularly fond of the T.7, in February 2009 the family flew to Coobalture in Queensland to meet Ralph Cusack and the derelict Auster.  


What they saw could so easily have been mistaken for a pile of junk.  To the discerning eye, however, it was a beautiful piece of equipment yearning for a good home. 

Despite her sorry state the aircraft was shipped to New Zealand. 

With no idea of her past life the intention still was to rebuild her to a flying state.  The only thing known about her was that she had flown in Hong Kong.  This lack of history was not a deterrent because at that time the intention was to rebuild her and paint her to represent the T.7 the Royal New Zealand Air Force operated in Antarctica. Even so it was important to find out her identity and history and having the aircraft data plate was a good start. 

Some months later this Auster (at this stage simply known as TAY223ES) arrived in New Zealand, was unloaded and moved into Anthony’s garage.

A sorry site but surrounded by hope and enthusiasm!

The immediate priorities were to find a certifying aircraft engineer to oversee the rebuild, and to find out some history of her.   After initial difficulty and skepticism by many, a very experienced engineer, Jay McIntyre, specialist in vintage aircraft, saw through what looked like a pile of junk and agreed to take the project on structurally. 

The second priority is where Val Penlington, a fellow New Zealander, entered the scene.  Val, widow of Ross Penlington, a former Cammanding Officer and later Honorary Air Commodore of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, was able to provide much of the history of this forlorn looking aeroplane, and put Anthony in touch with members of the RHKAAF who had been involved with HKG-4 when she had been in service with the Unit.   Val also provided an authentic Auster wooden propellor, which had been presented to Ross on his retirement, together with the original Pilots Notes for AOP-6 and T-7.

Once the proud history of WE552, later to be known as HKG-4, was learned, having served the whole of her flying career thus far with the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force an easy decision was taken.   She would be restored as HKG-4 not as an RNZAF imitator.

HKG-4’s fuselage got x-rayed and was non-destructive tested by Safe Air at Blenhelm Aerodrome and although she had looked bad, structurally she was in remarkably good shape.  Before long the boys at JEM Aviation, also at Blenhelm, had her fuselage frame repaired (after months of paint-stripping by hand) and painted back to original Auster green.  Finally, she rolled out the hangar doors looking like a brand new structure!
Following the work at Blenhelm she was shipped to Rangiora for fitting out and finishing, Every effort is being made to restore her to full military specification, with authentic parts being sourced from around the world.  The rebuild is a labour of love, using whatever time can be made available between full-time work and domestic necessities.

No short-cuts are permitted, with the resulting long time-frame being accepted.  The taxying trials are expected to take place maybe in 2023, with the first flight shortly thereafter.

If you would like to follow progress on the rebuild, here is a link to her Facebook page
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Auster AOP 6 Registration VF 644

(Service with the HKAAF from 4th October 1949 to 28th October 1966)

Auster AOP 6 VF644 was built in 1947.   Inconsistent logbook entries put VF644’s post-assembly test flight as having been on either 14th or 27th January 1950.

She was taken on charge by the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force on 4 October 1949.  Like all the Austers operated by the HKAAF VF644 proved to be a versatile aircraft, and was used for tasks ranging from ‘ab initio’ pilot training to army liaison. She was also sturdy and reliable.

On one occasion, however, in February 1954, VF644’s engine failed.  She was skilfully force-landed by Pilot Officer Lew Mose on Shek O, a short, curved beach on the eastern tip of Hong Kong Island.  Only after all non-essential equipment, including the battery, had been removed from the aircraft, was Flight Lieutenant Geoff Cairns (then QFI and later to become an Air Vice-Marshal) able to take off and fly her back to Kai Tak.

After having rendered many years of sterling service VF644’s operational life ended shortly before all HKAAF aircraft were given Hong Kong Government registration.   On 28th October 1966 VF644 was struck off strength.

In 1971 VF644 was sold to E.J. “Buzz” Gothard of Chehalis, Washington, USA.   Making the journey to the US with VF644 were several other Austers.   Another AOP 6 (VF643/HKG-5), two AOP 9s (XN407 and XN408), plus salvaged and spare parts. The available information is that, after being rebuilt, the AOP 6 VF643 (US registration N38220) and one of the AOP 9s (either US registration N38224 or N408XN) were later almost totally destroyed in accidents. 

VF644 appears to have languished in its twenty crates in Gothard’s ‘Aluminium Barn’ at his farm (complete with airfield) until 1994. 
That was the year in which she was acquired by Harold Bullock of Hillsboro, Oregon.

Bullock, a World War II veteran who had seen service in the Philippines, learned to fly in 1947 on his G.I. Bill, and had already restored an Aeronca TAC.  Rebuilding VF644 was to take him the next five years…”a few minutes at a time, but a lot of 10 and 12 hour days”.  Apart from poring over manufacturer records, technical manuals, magazine articles and military records in the course of researching for the project, Bullock received assistance and advice from the Auster Flying Club in the UK, and the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, of which he was a member.  He also made a trip to the UK to talk with other Auster owners, examine their aircraft, and bring back parts that he needed. 

The rebuilt Auster is testimony to the effort and hard work he put into the project.  He used the original 4-cylinder Gypsy Major 10 engine, and finished the aircraft in HKAAF colours and markings. The only major concession he made, in the interests of safety, was to replace the Auster’s linen covering with a fire resistant and more resilient polymer skin.

The rebuilt Auster, now registered as N52874, made her maiden flight on 15th June 1999.  She has drawn praise from many aviation enthusiasts, and garnered awards.   On her first time out, at the Northwest Antique Airplane Club’s Fly-In, held in Vancouver, Washington in August 1999, the she was named “Best of Class – WW2 Liaison”, and earned Bullock the award for “Best Workmanship”.   Not bad for two veterans!

An unfortunate traffic accident near his home seriously injured Hank and healing required lengthy recuperation. His attempts to convince the Federal Aviation Authority he was fit to return to flying failed so in the end he reached the painful decision to put his museum quality Auster up for sale.

It was suggested by people close to him that he consider selling his Auster to a museum.   After some agonizing deliberation, arrangements were made to meet with Mr. Del Smith, owner of the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, home to hundreds of aircraft, including Howard Hughs’s famous “Spruce Goose.  At that time a purchase was not possible but a compromise was agreed, to display the Auster in the museum until a buyer made a solid offer.

On November 24th, Hank, accompanied by a flying instructor, flew to McMinnville and presented his AOP 6 Auster in the authentic colours of the HKAAF. with the red dragon and propeller on the cowl, to the caretakers at Evergreen Aviation Museum.

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Auster AOP 6 Registration VF643

(Service with the HKAAF from 4th October 1949 to 1970 and the RHKAAF from 1970 to 7th February 1971)

In October 1949 Auster AOP6, registration VF643 entered service with the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.  In 1965 the HK Government introduced a register of its military aircraft and the following year VF643 became known as HKG-5.

After more than twenty-one years of sterling service she was finally struck off strength on 7th February 1971.  Later that year, together with another AOP 6, VF644, two AOP 9s, XN407 and XN408, and salvaged and spare parts, VF643  was sold to E.J. “Buzz” Gothard of Chehalis, Washington, USA.   

The available information is that, after being rebuilt, VF643 (US registration N38220) and one of the AOP 9s (either US registration N38224 or N408XN) were later almost totally destroyed in accidents.

In 2017 New Zealander Anthony Galbraith managed to locate the remains of VF643 in a barn in Vancouver, Canada, where it was being stored with an ex-Royal Canadian Air Force Auster and all the spares inventory from the RCAF.  They were purchased and in October of that year they all arrived safely on the shores of New Zealand.

Damon Edwards, a friend of Anthony Galbraith, bought  VF643 / HKG-5 and his aim is to rebuild the aircraft in the livery of the HKAAF, with the ambition that one day HKG-5 will once more fly in formation with HKG-4. 

But this is another story for another day . . .

In the mean-time take a look at these two proud aircraft as they stand together in October 2017 before VN643 / HKG-5 was shipped to Auckland for the rebuild. . .

. . .and on the right, in the late 1960s, VF643 / HKG-5 in formation with another grand lady, VF644 whose story is told above.

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