If there was ever a country that just has to be seen from a light aircraft, it is New Zealand – bust best take a guide pilot for the more challenging landings.

Words Mike Cronk  Images author & Michael & Lesley Collins

Flying outside the UK had always been an attraction and after enjoying flying around southern Africa with Hank’s Self-Fly Safaris in 2007 we decided it was time to take on a different challenge: mountain flying in New Zealand. Several emails with Jo and Matt McCaughan of ‘Flyinn NZ’ and the plans were in place. My wife Fred, who had completed the AOPA Flying Companions course before we departed for Africa, had gone on to finish her PPL. We now had to share the flying!

Maps, itinerary and forms needed to complete the NZ CAA validation arrived several weeks before we left. It was the Milford Sound procedures and mountain flying booklets that caught my attention.

If I’d had any doubts about the benefits of a guide pilot, they were beginning to fade after reading the arrangements for this airfield, surrounded by mountains.

We were met on our first day of the trip at Queenstown Airport by Ivan Krippner, one of Flyinn’s guides and a local instructor. With a light breeze, brilliant sunshine and a short briefing I took off for Geordie Hill Station (GHS) in one of GHS’s two 180hp Cessna 172s. Already I was starting to notice some of the differences in the way NZ pilots fly. None of the maps in the aircraft had a line on them. Little point, we were told ? planned tracks around the mountains rarely give you a direct route and may have to be changed to deal with low cloud. Even the practice of flying on the right of the valley may be varied if there is turbulence in the lee of a mountain.

The white windsock was at first a bit difficult to pick out amongst the white-painted tyres that mark the runway. The strip is also sited in a relatively narrow valley, so flying a circuit meant ‘hugging the hill’ ? something I normally try to avoid. The strip height is 1,450ft QNH (they do not use QFE). Flying a conventional circuit was less important than ensuring you have maximum flexibility. So as I went around, I was encouraged to turn away from the obvious pattern to maximise the width of the valley, rather than risk ending up too close to the hills on the downwind side.

Safely down on one of many bumpy runways we were going to land on in the coming days, I mused over the fact that this was going to be a steep learning curve.

Highest peak in the Southern Alps

After enjoying Jo’s fresh coffee and scones up at the house (her excellent hospitality was one of the hallmarks of the trip) we headed off to Mount Cook. The highest peak in New Zealand’s Southern Alps at 12,316ft, this lies between Mounts Sefton and Tasman, and is surrounded by glaciers and snowfields. The route took us out over Omarama and onto the Dobson River Valley, crossing the Sladden Saddle at 7,690ft. Routeing via the saddles ? low-level gaps between mountain ranges ? means you avoid having to climb higher to get from one valley to another. In cloudy conditions they are approached at an angle to check what is over the other side and ensure you are able to turn away safely if it is clouded in. Approaching straight-on may not give you the turning space if the decision is a no-go. It is the same principle with flying on the right of the valley. Aside from separating traffic, this gives you more space to turn if you need to.

We continued our climb up to 11,500ft with the Mueller Glacier to our left. The higher we got, the slower the climb until we were at service ceiling, creeping up at little more than 100fpm. The high mountains, steep-sided valleys with rivers or lakes in the bottom, snowfields, glaciers and sheer ruggedness of the peaks were powerful and dramatic sights, if not slightly unnerving. The thought of where to put down if needs be was constantly at the back of our minds.

To the west was a solid cloudbase stretching well out to sea. Even to the east the lower valleys were filled with cloud. We started a slow turn around the peak and a few minutes later, as we entered its lee, the turbulence from the 25kt wind caught us. For the first time in my limited flying hours, I found it hard to control the pitching and rolling of the aircraft. Power back and nose up to reduce airspeed improved the feeling slightly. It was five minutes before we got into cleaner air and the aeroplane settled back to a normal cruise.

Our next stop was Mt Cook airfield. The cloud in the valley meant flying south over Lake Pukaki to drop through a hole before turning back under the cloud to land at Mt Cook (2,153ft). Like many of the airfields we flew into, it was not very busy but had a well-equipped terminal and unoccupied Tower. After a short taxi ride into Mt Cook town, we had lunch in the caf� adjoining the museum dedicated to Sir Edmund Hillary’s use of the area for pre-Everest training. After a visit to the museum we headed back to GHS. On take off we took a short detour further up the valley to the Tasman Glacier lake to check out the icebergs.

That evening an American couple arrived. They had flown down from North Island with Matt, and we had the first of many enjoyable evening dinners.

The following day we swapped guide pilots and Matt flew with us. The plan was to fly to a number of local strips to give us a chance to experience the varying conditions we were likely to come across during the rest of the trip.

After visiting several lakeside strips of varying angles, inclines and roughness, our lunchtime destination was ‘Tarras International’ (so named by Matt, who clearly enjoys irony). It did not even have a defined runway. Tarras is a small hamlet, ten minutes flying time from GHS, which boasts a petrol station, caf� and general store. It lies at the foot of an escarpment on top of which is a plateau of sheep pasture, where we were to land. Over-flying the field, we spotted a dead sheep in the middle of the intended landing spot. So, with a mental image of the two fences and line of trees that came together in one corner of the field, and the location of the dead sheep, Fred ? who was flying this leg ? landed well before the escarpment.

The following day we switched from air to water with a trip on one of the Dart River jet boats. They are based at Glenorchy at the top of Lake Wakatipu. We were joined by Megan George who would be our guide for most of the rest of the trip. The jet boats have a four-inch draught and took us up river, to the edge of the Mount Aspiring National Park and then back to Glenorchy. They are a fantastic way to see the river and surrounding countryside, and skipped over the shallowest of water and dodged boulders and rocks that would have stopped a tank. The following morning another C172 was added to the fleet, owned by Sue Telford. She was to lead our ‘wing’ for the next few days. Nick Taylor took over as guide pilot in the other C172 and would, over the course of the coming days, complete all of our BFRs for the NZ CAA licence validations.

This next day’s trip was the one I was looking forward to most, as it included a beach landing followed by a flight to Milford Sound, the airfield in the booklet that had captured my attention before we left. We headed out to Big Bay on the West Coast, where we were to land and explore the area behind the sand dunes. For a few months each year it is home to the whitebait fishermen who fly in and fly their catch out, via the beach. Our departure from Wanaka was timed to ensure we arrived an hour before low tide.

Flying out over the northerly end of the beach, we completed a circuit before setting up for the landing. The 3,000ft hills were covered in thick lush green forest, which we ‘hugged’ to ensure we did not land long and end up running into an area of gravel 600m down the beach. We touched down and slowed, but did not arrest the landing roll as we needed to keep on enough power to keep us moving, while being mindful that by applying too much we risked picking up stones from the beach. Seeing the three C172s lined up pointing out to sea was a strange sight.

We were soon off to Milford Sound, following the coast down to Yates Point and the mouth of the Sound and then crossing to the far side. The scale of the mountains and narrowness of the fjord disappearing around a number of bends as it snaked inland, highlighted why it is such a tourist destination. We felt a very small speck in the enormity of the towering fjord.

Milford Information confirmed Runway 11 was available for a straight-in approach. Whilst this avoids flying the non-standard overhead join for R29, it did mean we had to make an early commitment on landing, as go-rounds on R11 are far from straightforward. The sides of the mountain off the starboard wing felt extremely close and I only fully appreciated how stunning the view was when I got on the ground.

Touching down just over the trees and threshold, I felt a real sense of achievement. Lunch and a walk around the Sound soon had us heading off south to Fjordland and an airfield called Manapouri.

Turn sharp left on departure

The departure from Milford had us taking off on R29 and making a sharp right-hand turn to provide space for a climbing turn to the left to vacate the overhead and fly up the Arthur River Valley. At the top of the Arthur River is Lake Quill. At about 1,000ft above the valley floor, completely surrounded by mountains, it is like a huge, steep-sided soup bowl with a waterfall that feeds into the river below. We were to enter over the ‘v’-shaped lip of the falls and fly an internal circuit around the inside. The relatively small diameter had us powering back and adding one stage of flap to get the best views and ensure we got around such a tight space. It was an unusual experience and the view was breath-taking, not least when we crossed back over the waterfall and the ground disappeared beneath us.

For the next hour we flew in and out of a number of the fjords, avoiding some of the low coastal cloud and front that appeared to be moving in. Manapouri was developed with support from the local authority. The runway and terminal building are relatively new but sadly deserted. Air New Zealand ran commercial services providing tourist access to Fjordland, but it was not a commercial success. We had the arrival/departure hall and caf� to ourselves. Taking off from Manapouri, with the weather closing in, we were back at GHS in 70 minutes.

The next day’s trip was to Dunedin on the East Coast, capital of the Central Otago region. The weather was characterised by a cold southerly wind, low cloud and rain squalls?a reminder that the next stop south was Antarctica! Fred flew the outward leg through the mountains in choppy and at times menacing conditions.

On the way out we skirted Alexandra ATZ where we were reminded by a temporary military ATC unit that an Air Force exercise was under way. Acknowledging its presence, we pointed out this was why we were keeping our distance… The chilly weather stayed with us for the day.

An overnight on Stewart Island off the South Coast was the following day’s destination. The route down took us into Mandeville. This gave us a chance to visit the Croydon Aircraft Company workshop. I only wish we could have spent more time there and seen it on a work day.

Worldwide reputation

Established in 1986, it’s run commercially and has a worldwide reputation. It seems to turn its hand to every aspect of vintage construction and restoration. The engine shop alone was an Aladdin’s cave with what appeared to be a huge stock of spare parts.

The company builds its own wooden propellers and some of the formers used to produce aircraft panels and sections were hugely complex. The workshop provided an amazing insight into traditional aircraft construction methods and techniques.

Departing the mainland we headed for Ryan’s Creek on Stewart Island. The airfield is not large and the tarmac is surrounded by thick layers of spongy grass and moss. Parking is very limited and there were already three aircraft tied down. We managed to get two of our aeroplanes around the apron but the third had to taxi to one end of the strip to find tie downs, now well buried in the surrounding vegetation.

The next day when fishing for blue cod we were surrounded by twenty or thirty keen-eyed albatrosses waiting to steal their share. They were close enough to touch, but the size of their beaks ensured we kept away.

Blue cod safely packed in ice, we headed back to our aircraft. Nick Taylor was our guide and examiner on this leg, as we were to carry out Biennial Flight Reviews. My EFATO was on departure from Ryan’s Creek with Oban below and the sea ahead. Options were limited, other than a short beach. My PFL took place up the coast then, just for fun, we flew at about 150ft for a few miles along the sand. Not that easy to do in the UK…

We returned via Alexandra, where the RNZAF excercise was still running, for fuel. Whilst being quite comfortable switching between boats and planes, I am less happy about being in the back while other people are carrying out steep turns and unusual manoeuvres. So I opted out of Fred’s BFR and spent an hour by the side of the runway chatting to the RNZAF crews and watching the aircraft.

VSI hit the stop

On the last leg the winds had picked up, and as we came to cross the ridge to drop into GHS, we started to suffer bad turbulence. We picked up an up-draught that took us from 3,500ft to 7,200 in fifteen seconds. It was as smooth as being in a lift, even though the VSI hit the stop. Nick said he had never experienced anything like it before ? nor had we.

The next two days we would be flying up the East Coast to Marlborough via Christchurch and Kaikoura, which is at the end of a deep sea trench that attracts whales and whale watchers. No more than three boats and/or aircraft are allowed near the whales at any one time. We dropped down to about 1,200ft and made some wide, sweeping turns around the bay. A few minutes in and we had our first success and spotted a whale with, we thought, a youngster alongside.

After a coffee and fuel stop, Fred flew the next leg up to Omaka, just outside Blenheim in the Marlborough region and home of the Aviation Heritage Centre. This collection is vividly displayed in themed settings and includes vintage aircraft, vehicles and a vast array of memorabilia. Much of it is from the personal collection of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

After a day’s wine tasting, the following day had us heading back down the West Coast. With a relatively strong easterly, we decided to climb up to 6,500ft to avoid being bounced around in the lee of the mountains. The coastal waters, where the glacial melt rivers ran into the sea, were a swirling pattern of contrasts from bright blue to grey. After refuelling and lunch in Hokitika, we were back in the air and flying past the Fox Glacier and Mount Cook. Last time we were here the west coast was blanketed in cloud, today we could not have asked for a clearer day. At Haast we turned inland to follow the main low level route inland up the Haast River. We were sadly coming to the end of our trip and soon landed at the farm for the last time. On our last day our hosts had arranged a small diversion ? a training flight in a Tiger Moth with Peter Hendriks of Classic Flights at Wanaka.

An amazing eleven days

It had been an amazing eleven days and the weather had allowed us to fulfil the itinerary as planned, with stunning scenery and challenging flying. Having a local guide with us who knew the areas and weather patterns, and was familiar with mountain flying turned out to be a real bonus. It enabled us to enjoy the flying without having the uncertainty of unfamiliar geography.

Jo and Matt, who run Flyinn and shared their home with us, are marvellous hosts. Their hospitality and the evenings around their dinner table sharing flying exploits with a bunch of like-minded aviators will be fondly remembered.