Maurice Sage – From UK “Pilot” Magazine

In late 2002 my wife (June) and I thought it would be a good idea to take a winter holiday, preferably in the southern hemisphere and win an extra summer! June had read about a company in New Zealand called Flyinn Tours offering flying holidays and since we both have PPLs this appeared to be the ideal solution. We selected a seven day package from the Flyinn offering but as it turned out we eventually extended this to three weeks and clocked up over thirty flying hours, all in the incredible scenery of the South Island.

On January 15 2003 we set off for New Zealand planning to stay for six weeks – a bonus for being retired! Luggage was one suitcase, some hand luggage and, in order to cover June’s other flying interest, her paraglider and associated equipment. Paragliding in New Zealand is very popular, amongst all their other outdoor sports, and June considered this was an opportunity not to be missed.

We arrived in Auckland (North Island) and spent a week travelling south to Wellington. Our major impression of the country was the amazing changes in scenery, lots of open space, empty roads, friendly people and surprise at the volcanic nature of the landscape. At Wellington we took a commercial flight to Queenstown in the South Island with a change of planes at Christchurch. Queenstown, which lies in the Southern Alps, is surrounded by mountains up to 7000 feet with spectacular aquamarine coloured finger lakes lying below.

The following morning Matt McCaughan who runs Flyinn collected us from our very comfortable lakeside hotel and we made our way through the mountains to Geordie Hill, the sheep station where we were to stay for the next three weeks. On the way out of Queenstown the extent of the mountain ranges became apparent, particularly to the west. As we discovered later the mountain ranges run the whole length of the South Island from Fiordland through the Southern Alps to the north coast. In fact mountains cover over half of all New Zealand and were to provide some magnificent flying for us. Climbing out on the road from Queenstown we stopped at “Bungy Bridge”, one of the several bungy jumps in the area using an old road bridge over a very deep gorge. Bungy Bridge is a VRP for Queenstown which we were to use a number of times over the following three weeks.

In the CAA handbook “In, Out and Around Queenstown” there is a nice note on Bungy Bridge which reads “report prior to reaching the bridge (you should now be 4500 feet or below) to allow time for receiving arrival instructions before entering the zone – and don’t get distracted from the job by watching the bungy jumpers.” As if!

Our destination was Geordie Hill, a 7000 merino sheep station of 5200 acres set in a wide valley off the Lindis Pass and 12nm to the east of Wanaka Airport. Matt manages the station but also finds time with his wife Jo for plenty of flying. The valley is surrounded by ground rising to over 4000 feet with a 1000 metre grass runway running down its centre, with two smart yellow 180hp C172s waiting for our use (ZK WAX and ZK TAR).

At the station main house we met Jo, who made us most welcome and in the evenings provided absolutely delicious food and hand picked New Zealand wines, many produced locally. We also met Kelvin Wright the CFI from the Otago Flying Club at Taieri Dunedin who had flown in to test us for our New Zealand pilots licences.

Mid-afternoon we flew out with Kelvin in TAR and found the 180hp performance a noticeable difference compared to the 160hp Cessna we both fly in the UK and useful to get cleanly out of the Geordie Hill valley. On the wide Otago plain we flew to an isolated strip and after we had both carried out forced landings, stalls, steep turns and other exercises flew on to Taieri where we left Kelvin and picked up Luke who was to be our flying guide – very necessary for the mountain flying in the Southern Alps and Fiordland. We flew back to Geordie Hill from Dunedin (about an hours flight) across the Otago plain, through the Dunstan Mountains (5500 feet) at Thomsons Gap, down the Lindis Valley and back into Geordie Hill. We were welcomed with drinks by Matt and Jo and met Glenn and Barbara from the US who were to fly in WAX, the other C172. This was followed by a magnificent evening meal with excellent local wines. Later we walked the short distance back to the cottage where we were staying and marvelled at the clarity of the night sky. The visibility in New Zealand is exceptional, due to the clean unpolluted air, but suffers from particularly high ultraviolet radiation, not helped by the hole in the ozone layer over nearby Antarctica. A sun hat and good sunglasses are vital kit.

Next morning we flew over to Wanaka airfield, not difficult to find as it lies at the end of a beautiful aquamarine coloured finger lake 22nm long. This is where they house the Fighter Pilots Museum and hold the biennial “Warbirds Over Wanaka” airshow. We spent an interesting few hours in the Fighter Pilots Museum viewing the many aircraft and other well presented displays. While at Wanaka a number of differences to UK aviation became apparent such as the price of petrol (about 1/3 of the UK) obtained from free standing pumps using a credit card, with landing fees only 2 or 3 UK pounds. Despite the general aviation activity in and around Wanaka, including parachuting and paragliding, there was no ATC, at least not on the many occasions we subsequently visited. This was the same for nearly all the airfields we visitedt, the exception being the majors such as Dunedin and Christchurch. However RT position and intention calls were in constant use on predetermined area frequencies, being particularly useful in the mountains and other busy aviation areas. QFE’s were a complete mystery to the locals. A standard joining procedure was used for all airfields without ATC, which was across the airfield centre at 500 feet above circuit height, determine wind direction, select runway then descend to join downwind at circuit height, reporting all designated positions and intentions. Since most of the airfields do not put numbers on their runways some extra care is required! The GA charts in New Zealand are configured to make maximum use of the printed sheet area and the half million versions of the South Island have as a consequence lines of latitude running at a steep angle across the page. This is due of course to the way the island bears to the east. A slight surprise on the first flight planning exercise!

After refuelling we took off for Oamaru on the east coast, flying across the Otago plain through the Kakanui mountains. Oamaru was a major trading port in the late 19th century, but only over a relatively short period. However during its heyday it was obviously very wealthy and still possesses some magnificent Victorian carved stone buildings. From Oamaru we flew up the blue Waitaki River to Omarama (famous for its international gliding activities) with wire launches up to 3000 feet AGL. This first touring day was very much getting used to the 180hp 172s, local terrain, airfields, navigation and some basic mountain flying. On the way back to Geordie Hill we had our first experience of the strong north westerly that can give rise to some severe turbulence, particularly in the mountains. However the turbulence on this trip was fairly moderate to what we experienced on a subsequent flight through the Marlborough Sounds, south of the Cook Strait. We completed our day with another good dinner at Geordie Hill and a real feeling of being part of the McCaughan family. The weather tended to dictate flying plans for the following day and tomorrow we were to head west into the Southern Alps and visit Mounts Aspiring and Cook, then fly up the west coast around the north part of the South Island, down the east coast, crossing the Canterbury and Otago plains and back to Geordie Hill. It was planned to stay for two nights near the Abel Tasman National Park.

The following morning we flew to the Southern Alps. Our route was via the south end of Wanaka Lake and into the mountains flying up what seemed a very narrow valley with the river Matukituki below. The mountains on either side were up to 7000 feet and looked very very close, but getting a good perspective of distances in the mountains needs practice. We were glad to have Luke with us and I was reminded of some mountain flying advice “never fly up a valley you have not previously flown down”. At the river branch we turned into another valley leaving Mount Edward (8485 feet) on our left and a 8550 foot mountain on our right. Mount Aspiring was then ahead of us at 9940 feet. We climbed to 10,000 feet and flew round the mountain which was awesome, particularly with all the snow capped Southern Alps spread out beneath us and Mount Cook (12315 feet) clearly visible at 70 nm across this vast mountain range. From Mount Aspiring we flew over the mountains to Glentanner an airfield at the side of Lake Pukaki fed by the melt waters of the Tasman Glacier. Mount Cook was visible from the airfield, at a distance of 20 nm. The surrounding scenery was spectacular.

After coffee and a snack we flew up the Tasman River, with the mountains rising rapidly on either side. Reaching 11500 feet we flew round Mount Cook and over the Tasman Glacier which is 18 miles long, an average width of just over a mile and 2000 feet thick. You just run out of words to adequately describe the scenery!! From Mount Cook we flew to Franz Joseph, the site of two other famous glaciers Fox and Franz Joseph. After landing for a short stay at the local field we flew to the west coast which has a rain forest climate compared with the dryer eastern side of the mountains. This is due to an average annual rainfall of 250 inches in the west, while on the eastern side just 11 inches with very marked temperature differences; the Foehn effect. We then flew north for about two hours with the snow capped mountain range always there on our right, and reached Cape Farewell in brilliant weather. Turning east we flew along the coast of the Abel Tasman national park with its long empty yellow sandy beaches and turquoise water and landed at Motueka, quite a busy training airfield but still no ATC! We did the usual 500 feet above circuit height across the centre of the field to confirm the wind direction and after announcing our selected runway we descended on the active side. That night we stayed in a very pleasant motel (which are very good value in New Zealand) and in the evening had an excellent meal in Motueka at a converted Methodist Chapel! The following day we took advantage of a coastal walk along the Abel Tasman Park, glorious beaches, beautiful weather and a warm sparkling sea. In the evening another good meal just across the bay from Nelson and a relatively short night since we had a very early start next morning due to a strong northwest wind forecast.

We took off from Motueka extremely early and met the north westerly flying through the islands of the Marlborough Sounds. The turbulence was severe and quite uncomfortable. However, we were tightly strapped in and I was impressed with the way the Cessna airframe stood up to its treatment. Incidentally the weather during our stay was mainly perfect with lots of sunshine and no rain; the high winds were infrequent.

Down the east coast of the south island we stopped at Kaikoura, which is famous for whale watching. Just after we had landed the other Cessna (WAX) arrived and reported that they had sighted some whales which had just dived and should be up in about fifteen minutes. We rapidly got airborne again and saw their spouts about a mile offshore. We circled over them for a while and were struck by their large size. We had a great view of their tails rising above the surface as they eventually dived down into the deep. After a short stay at Kaikoura airfield we set off for Geordie Hill crossing the Canterbury Plain with still some uncomfortable turbulence due to that north westerly. Arriving back at Geordie Hill we had a great meal, plenty of wine and of course plenty of flying talk covering the past two days. The weather forecast looked good for tomorrow and it was planned to fly down to Fiordland and navigate into the famous Milford Sound!

Fiordland is a national park covering some 4633 square miles in the southwest corner of the South Island with 200 named mountains. It is a rugged wilderness with dramatic coastal fiords created during the Ice Age, allowing the Tasman Sea to penetrate deep into the bush clad mountains, Large glacial lakes such as Te Anau and Manapouri along with many smaller ones adds to its majestic scenery. Flight plans are a must.

Milford Sound is one of the more accessible fiords and a popular site for visitors. However the New Zealand Visual Flight Guide gives some idea of the care needed when flying into Milford. “The Milford Sound aerodrome approach and departure routes are constrained by surrounding precipitous terrain and often experience unusual micro-climate conditions” and “Pilots who have not operated into Milford Sound in the last six months shall arrange a briefing from a pilot currently experienced with operations to/from the aerodrome” Milford is also one of a number of places where Special VFR Procedures are in operation.

From Geordie Hill we flew through the mountains to the south of Mount Aspiring and landed on the beach of Big Bay which is about 15nm up the coast from Milford Sound. After a short stop we made our way south to enter the Sound from the sea. We went through what seemed a particularly narrow opening between the very steep mountains going straight down into the water and rising to over 5000 feet, quite dramatic. With the Sound narrowing to about 800 metres at one point we hugged the cliff face to starboard and proceeded down the Sound at 1000 feet for a dramatic 9nm flight. We eventually spotted the 800 metre Milford runway at the far end of the Sound and were give landing clearance by ATC, another memorable flight. The high mountains surrounding Milford Sound are to say the least awesome, with impressive waterfalls coming down from their high inland lakes. After taking off we had another magnificent view of the surrounding mountains as we climbed out over them and headed for the sea.

Our next landing was at Mussel Point, further up the coast, at a completely deserted strip that we flew over a few times to inspect its condition. Apparently it was a collection point used by the deer hunters (cullers) who were licensed to keep down the thousands of deer that multiplied and migrated across the Otago plane into the Southern Alps. During the height of the culling, around 12000 deer per year were taken out of the Haast back country area alone (just north of Mussel Point) by a variety of transportation. At one time Austers, Piper Cubs, Cessnas and even a Moth were used to bring out the culled deer from the surrounding back country. A Tiger was apparently in use for a short while but its lack of brakes were a major disadvantage on the short and rough bush strips. New Zealand developed a major venison export business to Europe and the USA during this period.

After Mussel Point we flew north and turned inland following the famous Haast River, bordered on either side by 6000 ft mountains. Following a southerly branch of the Haast, which flows into Lake Wanaka, we continued through the mountains to Makarora, landing at a single grass strip next to the river. Our way back was down through Lake Wanaka through a small mountain gap into Lake Hawea and across the Hawea Flat to Tarras and home.

The great experience of this holiday was to fly in the mountains but at the same time to be aware of the challenges presented in this new environment. For example the very rapid changes in the mountain weather, giving poor visibility, severe turbulence. In one valley we encountered a particularly strong updraft, with the VSI needle firmly on the stop at 2000ft/minute and lasting longer than expected. It also gave us increasing airspeed! WAX was ahead of us at the time and much higher. Next we were looking down on him!

Particular terrain and wind direction can form rotors and needs avoiding if in doubt. Also keep clear of lenticulars. Flying in valleys on the downwind side (preferably on the right hand side) is strongly recommended in order to enable tighter turns if required and to be in less turbulence and improved lift. Checking the entry into valleys from the compass and map is also a good safety measure. Snow in the mountains can easily create false horizons, especially in a turn. However bush lines, if present, are of considerable help with this problem. The correct crossing of ridges with a shallow escape angle in mind also needs to be carried out. These are just a few of the many skills to be acquired as well as a good appreciation of your aircraft capabilities. However, a highly recommended flying experience!

The following day we flew up Lake Hawea and landed at a small strip called Dingleburn. This was an interesting landing since it was necessary to carry out a downwind leg very close to the mountainside with an extremely tight right hand turn (no base leg) and straight in to land. Take-off was also of interest, a running start from the side of the grass strip, onto the strip, then a sharp left hand turn on getting airborne and through a gap between high rock faces and then out over the lake. From Dingleburn we flew back to Wanaka for fuel and then through Queenstown airspace and up Lake Wakatipu past Pigeon and Pig Islands to Glenorchy Airfield. After lunch we took a jet boat ride up the River Dart. Quite a lot of filming took place here for Lord Of The Rings. The wilderness scenery was quite breathtaking, with large waterfalls cascading down from the surrounding mountains. The trip back to Geordie was a very relaxed 30nm flight down Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown past the Bungy Bridge VRP, over to Cromwell and up Lake Dunstan to the Lindis Valley and Geordie Hill. In the evening June decided to try some paragliding from the hills surrounding the valley and had a short evening flight back to the farmstead.

The following day we set off for Stewart Island which is situated about 15 nm off the southeast coast of the South Island. Our first stop was at Mandeville Airfield about 80nm south of Geordie Hill. Here we spent a pleasant few hours touring the Croydon Aircraft Company works where they rebuild vintage aircraft. A number of Tigers were under restoration plus other De Havilland types and a Percival Proctor. A superb looking Dragonfly based at Mandeville was much admired. After Glenn had taken a Tiger flight, June had practiced some circuits and Matt and myself relaxed in the Moth Restaurant with coffee and cakes, we took off for Stewart Island. Crossing through Invercargill airspace we flew out over the sea to Ryan’s Creek the only single strip on the island and quite deserted. The island population is around 400.

On our arrival we were taken down to the harbour and boarded a small fishing boat skippered by John a local fisherman and headed for a small Island called Ulva. The only mammals in New Zealand before man’s arrival were two species of bats. Man introduced many mammals including pigs, rats, rabbits, stoats, possums and deer which have caused considerable ecological damage. The stoats were supposed to keep the rabbits down but unfortunately went for the flightless birds such as the Kiwi. Ulva Island has been cleared of all these intruders and the experience of walking around this semi-tropical island with unusual birdcalls and tame ones waddling around your feet was a unique experience. Back at the boat John had prepared a blue cod lunch and a good mug of tea and after this we set out to try our hand at fishing, it was all too easy. A line, two hooks and some bait and the blue cod just jumped onboard! In a very short time we had enough fish to take back to Geordie Hill for our dinner the next day. On this trip we saw quite a few penguins and some extremely large sea birds anxious to get any fish leftovers. We stayed at a very pleasant apartment overlooking Half Moon Bay and in the evening went for another great dinner!

In the morning we took off from Ryan’s Creek and made our way to Balclutha where we stopped for lunch. The influence of the Scots in the South Island is very marked and was much in evidence at Balclutha, where it seemed all the streets bore Scottish names. However Balclutha, which is near the mouth of the Clutha River, appeared to be an exception to this influence. It wasn’t. I found out later that Clutha is gaelic for Clyde since there is another river called the Clyde further north!

While we were at Balclutha airfield we watched a Zlin going through its paces for the press. The Zlin was used for top dressing and its performance was impressive. Apparently without loading its stall speed, according to the pilot was 29knots.

June and self flew back to Balclutha later in our stay. When we arrived at the airfield it was covered with sheep and we carried out a go-around ready to do a diversion. A friendly voice came on the R/T asking if we wanted the sheep removed. Yes we replied and on our downwind leg a car came onto the field and drove the sheep to the side, with the exception of one animal who persisted in running round in circles. However by the time we were on finals he had joined his flock and we were able to land.

Our next stop was the Taieri airfield which lies within the Dunedin CTR. It was here that we left Luke who had been such a helpful guide. We then flew back across the Otago plain through the now familiar Thomsons Gap into the Lindis Pass and Geordie Hill. Glenn and Barbara, the US couple had flown onto Christchurch parting company with us at Balclutha. Fortunately there was spare accommodation at Flyinn for the next ten days and we decided to take it. During this period we did some flying with Matt in the Fiordland to the remote Doubtful Sound, another memorable flight and bush landings up the Hunter River at a delightful spot called Wind Pudding! We flew again to Balclutha, Wanaka, Mandeville, Dunedin and once to Te Anau and Alexandra. June managed a number of paragliding flights during this period including a three-day SIV (Simulation d’Incident de Vol) course over Lake Wanaka carrying out recovery exercises such as wing collapses! Lake Wanaka being used to retrieve and soften any non-recoveries!

We eventually said goodbye to Matt and his family and flew WAX back to Taieri. At the Dunedin VRP we were asked to carry out a three sixty by the Dunedin controller until a group of parachutists had landed in their CTR and could we report when we had them in sight, all very relaxed and GA friendly. A fitting end to a truly exceptional holiday.
Thanks to Matt, Jo and Luke at Flyinn

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