Call for fault-prone Air Force 757s to be replaced earlier

Source: 1News

After multiple faults and breakdowns, a former defence minister is calling on the Government to replace the ageing planes used to deliver NZDF equipment and transport VIPs.

After rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential figures in Washington including President Joe Biden the Prime Minister's US tour ended on a low note when the 757 transport aircraft, set to fly her home, broke down.

What do you expect, former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said to 1News, when you consider New Zealand has owned these planes for 20 years - after they were bought second-hand.

"It's pathetic when you put a trade delegation on the plane and it breaks down. It just looks ridiculous," he said.

"The air force’s two Boeing 757s are nearly three decades old, not two decades old.

READ MORE: NZDF looking to replace plane used to transport PM and cargo

"The Australians have got a whole fleet of modern aircraft ranging from quite small executive style jets to the executive version of the 757, to a sort of airbus 330 large aircraft."

"In short... they're all relatively new. They never have problems for that reason."

The New Zealand Air Force purchased the two 757 aircraft second-hand in 2003 at a cost of $104 million.

In 2007 the two aircraft were modified and strengthened to carry cargo and upgraded with new engines.

They aren't scheduled to be replaced for another six years. A pre-Covid estimate put the price between $350 million and $600 million.

While Mapp says the two planes in service are "way too old" and should be replaced, the aircraft model, the 757, is ideal, as when it's not transporting ministerial delegations or NZDF troops, it can be used to carry cargo once the seats have been stripped out.

“If you rely on a Hercules to take troops to say Europe, you’re talking more like a three-day trip.”

The aircraft is currently flying Jacinda Ardern between cities in Australia, and so far, there haven’t been any issues. The Prime Minister's trip to Japan in April was also fault-free.

However, these periods of smooth flying have been an exception, this isn't the first time the ageing plane has broken down on a New Zealand PM.

In 2016, then prime minister John Key's trip to India, as part of a trade delegation, was stalled in Townsville, Australia, after the 757 failed to take off twice due to mechanical issues.

Eventually, the NZDF were required to send a replacement plane for the final leg.

In 2019 the current PM was left temporarily stranded, once again, in Australia, when the 757, set to take Ardern and members of the media home from Melbourne couldn't take off due to an aircraft computer error. During this delay, the prime minister took a commercial flight back to New Zealand.

But while the recent breakdown left ministers of the NZ delegation and media stranded in the US, the prime minister was homebound on a commercial return flight, pre-planned to avoid delays caused by the stops needed to refuel.

Air Vice-Marshal Tony Davies says the aircraft are safe but admits there will be more faults as the 2028 replacement date draws nearer.

"I did fly those aircraft for four years when we first got them and we were having faults then," he said.

"[But] we have a very high safety bar. It's way up here. If we're ever in trouble we don't take shortcuts and fly in a compromised safety position."

Figures obtained by the Act Party show that over the last five years, maintenance on the two planes has cost $70 million.