The Kiwi roundel has now graced the aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) for 50 years, more than all other roundel types in total. Just how did a flightless bird end up as an enduring symbol of our Air Force?
The search for a national identity, in the form of a distinctly 'New Zealand' emblem for RNZAF aircraft, dates back to the 1950s. Until that time the RNZAF continued to use Royal Air Force (RAF) roundels as we had done since the 1930s. In 1957, due to mounting public pressure, and following the Royal Australian Air Force’s adoption of the kangaroo roundel the year before, the RNZAF adopted a white fern-leaf in the red centre of the existing RAF type roundel, (a kiwi roundel was investigated but the fern-leaf won out). Six months later it was changed to a ‘silver’ fern-leaf, an emblem that would last for the next 13 years.
All was not well, however; the ferns were difficult to spot at a distance, and the decals used to apply them would degrade, leading some observers to remark that they looked like a scratch on the paintwork. To add insult to injury, there were also suggestions from some quarters that the fern leaf could be mistaken for a white feather – an infamous symbol of cowardice. Grumblings both from within the service and civilian population meant that the kiwi continued to be mooted as a ’better’ emblem for our Air Force.
Kiwis had been appearing on RNZAF aircraft in various guises since the 1950s. No.14 Squadron’s Venom aircraft operating from Singapore during the Malayan Emergency wore white kiwis on their tails from late 1956, as did their Canberra bombers, both abroad and at home. Canberras of No. 75 Squadron (aircraft leased from the RAF during the Malayan Emergency) wore red kiwis behind a blue map of New Zealand. It seems that, unofficially at least, the kiwi was the symbol of choice for many within the RNZAF.
By late 1969 the pressure for change grew louder still when the Commanding Officer of No. 41 Squadron, operating in Singapore amidst a multitude of RAF roundels, suggested that a black kiwi would be more appropriate and recognisable. Opinions were sought from within the service and unsurprisingly the kiwi had unanimous support. The case was presented to RNZAF Headquarters, complete with photographs of a C-47 Dakota (NZ53553) adorned with a kiwi roundel. The Air Staff were convinced and the process of refining the idea began.
The initial kiwi design was apparently based on the one florin coin (the equivalent of the new 20 cent coin) but this was considered ‘a bit scrawny’ and unbalanced when set in the roundel.
On 29 July 1970 a revised (fattened up) design was submitted to the Defence Council, who approved the adoption of the new Kiwi roundel on 8 September 1970. An icon was born. Instructions were drawn up and distributed to RNZAF bases for implementation and by February 1971 all operational RNZAF aircraft were wearing the new Kiwi with pride.
At 50 years old, the Kiwi roundel remains an instantly recognisable symbol of our Air Force, both at home and abroad. The ‘flightless’ bird seems destined to continue ‘flying’ for a long time to come.