Dakota NZ3551: A Jewel in the Crown

Residing in contented retirement at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand is one grand old aircraft with a very special history.

Dakota NZ3551 on display in the Aircraft Hall at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. Image: Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

Douglas C-47 Dakota NZ3551 is a ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Air Force Museum’s collection. One of the most successful aircraft designs of all time, the C-47 was the military version of the well-known commercial airliner, the DC-3, and was also the RNZAF’s first transport aircraft. The significance of this particular aeroplane goes far beyond its core role, however, with connections to our late Queen.

NZ3551 was part of the last batch of Dakotas delivered to the RNZAF. It was manufactured at the Douglas aircraft factory in Oklahoma City, USA, and arrived at Whenuapai on 14 August 1945, the day before the Japanese surrender which ended World War Two. After serving briefly with No. 40 Squadron, NZ3551 carried out general transport duties with No. 41 Squadron, including frequent supply flights to Japan in support of New Zealand occupation forces there.

In November 1953 it was allocated to No. 42 Squadron and selected for conversion to VIP configuration as the flagship aircraft for the Royal Tour of newly crowned Queen Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh. The aircraft was completely stripped out and refitted with plush carpets, leather reclining seats and rimu panelling. Crests of each RNZAF squadron in service at the time were displayed in the cabin, and there was even a separate toilet and dressing room for the convenience of the royal couple and their attendants. The aircraft had a crew of six, captained by decorated wartime pilot Squadron Leader Larry Siegert, who later became Chief of Air Staff. A second Dakota was designated as a Royal Courier aircraft, tasked with transporting equipment and baggage for the royal party.

Crew of VIP Dakota NZ3551 in front of their aircraft during the Royal Tour, 9 January 1954. At far left is the captain, Squadron Leader Larry Siegert DFC AFC, later Chief of Air Staff. Image ref OhG2330-54, RNZAF Official.

The Royal Tour was a massive event for New Zealand, as it was the first time a reigning monarch had visited the country. It was a different time; many New Zealanders still felt closely connected to the United Kingdom and were ardent supporters of the British Royal Family. It is estimated that three out of every four New Zealanders turned out to see the Queen during this first visit, with many going to extraordinary lengths to show their devotion. From 23 December 1953 to 31 January 1954, the Royal couple travelled the length and breadth of the country, visiting 46 towns and cities, from Kaikohe in the far north to Bluff in the deep south. They embarked on the Dakota for longer stretches, while shorter distances were covered by car or train. Everywhere they went, they were greeted by adoring crowds.

Elizabeth II-disembarking-dakota
Queen Elizabeth II disembarking Dakota NZ3551 at Kaikohe airport during the Royal Tour, 28 December 1953. Image ref OhG2327-53, RNZAF Official.
Dakota NZ3551 flying past Mt. Taranaki, 1953. Image ref OhG2293-53, RNZAF Official.

NZ3551 continued in its VIP role for many years after the coronation tour, transporting other members of the Royal family, heads of state and other important visitors around New Zealand until its retirement in 1977, when it was added to the Air Force Museum’s collection. Today, the aircraft sits in prominent position in the Aircraft Hall, still resplendent in its VIP livery, its interior a time capsule of former glory days.

Interior view of the cabin of NZ3551, in its original VIP configuration. Image: Air Force Museum of New Zealand.
The VIP dressing room aboard NZ3551. Image: Air Force Museum of New Zealand.