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50 Years of Flying Kiwis

KIWIS 50TH logo

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.

Pre-kiwi RNZAF roundels. L-r: RAF type, white fern 1957-58, silver fern 1958-70.
Pre-kiwi RNZAF roundels. L-r: RAF type, white fern 1957-58, silver fern 1958-70.

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.

Harvards from No. 2 Service Flying Training School at Woodbourne, showing RAF-style roundels, 1944. Image: RNZAF Official, PR4261.
Harvard NZ1053 with a white fern roundel, 1960s. Image: Air Force Museum of New Zealand, DWNZ1053a.

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.

No. 14 Squadron Venom at RAF Tengah, Singapore, 1957. Image: RNZAF Official, TENG135
No. 75 Squadron Canberra at Tengah, Singapore, 1960. Image: RNZAF Official, MUS96093.
No. 14 Squadron Canberra at Ohakea, 1962. Note the barely visible Silver Fern in the roundel. Image: RNZAF Official, OhG3729-62

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.

NZ3553 with mock-up roundel. Image: RNZAF Official, OhG2199-69
New Zealand one florin coin.

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.

Official RNZAF kiwi application drawings, 30 September 1970. RNZAF Official
Official RNZAF kiwi application drawings, 30 September 1970. RNZAF Official
Newsclipping from the Air Force Museum archives, regarding the newly applied kiwi roundel.
Newsclipping from the Air Force Museum archives, regarding the newly applied kiwi roundel.
Collections Technician Murray McGuigan with the original stencils for the application of the RNZAF kiwi roundel, now in the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.
Collections Technician Murray McGuigan with the original stencils for the application of the RNZAF kiwi roundel, now in the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

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.

RNZAF A109 helicopter, with kiwi roundel, 2011. Image: NZDF.
RNZAF A109 helicopter, with kiwi roundel, 2011. Image: NZDF.

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