So where does an Australian pilot go these days to find a full-on flying adventure? Well, across the Tasman to New Zealand, of course. By Darren Friend.
New Zealand is well-known for all things full-on, and that extends to flying. And by full-on, I’m talking about flying above snow-capped mountains over 10,000 feet high, valley flying, scenic coastlines, picturesque plains - and doing all of this with 70 other aircraft in close proximity. And then there’s the oodles of antique and rare aircraft to ogle over everywhere you look.
I’ve landed in NZ to take on the mammoth Around New Zealand Air Safari 2010, organised by Flying NZ. I’m lined up on the threshold of RWY03 at Ardmore Airport, the busiest airport in all of New Zealand, getting a 10-second countdown from safari officials, engine revving at 2000RPM, brakes on, timer ready in hand, palms sweaty, just waiting for the flag drop. But just how did I get here?
It all started late one night while surfing the internet. As usual, I was looking for interesting and visually stimulating websites - of an aviation nature, of course. During this search I came across a webiste for Flying NZ (www.flyingnz.co.nz/), an umbrella organisation for approximately 46 NZ aero clubs that together make up the Royal New Zealand Aero Club (RNZAC) Inc.
Their website states that they are, “dedicated to promoting the highest possible standard of flight training and practise for recreational aviation”, and what better way to show this commitment than to invite up to several dozen aircraft to come and tour around their great country while taking in the sites.
You would think finding pilots to fly around a beautiful and amazing country like New Zealand would be easy. Not so! Maybe the small matter of having to fly across the Tasman first, just to get to the starting point, was putting some pilots off? My first option of course was to see if I could find a suitable aircraft to hire in New Zealand for the event.
This quickly became a moot point as I fail to find one, something about an Air Safari being on at the same time... . So the decision is made for me. All I have to do now is find some fellow pilots who are willing to cross an ocean, twice, fly around an unfamiliar countryside with huge mountains that are often obscured in cloud, and who can take three weeks off work. Oh yeah, and who also own their own aircraft.
Thankfully, my work as a flying instructor has allowed me to become good mates with several people who fit the above description and it’s not long before I find two fellow crew members for the flight.
Steve, who is a part-owner of a Diamond DA40XLS, would accompany me for the flight over and the actual Air Safari, and Richard, another pilot who was up for an adventure, would join me at the end of the Air Safari for the journey home. It was difficult to find just the one pilot for the whole tour, as apparently married men find it difficult to build up enough ‘brownie points’ to be let off the leash for a full three weeks.
We had the company of two other Australian aircraft and their crew for the Tasman crossing, which was fantastic - David Green and Shelley Ross in David’s extremely slippery Cirrus SR22 GTS, and Phil Ayrton in his Vans RV4.
Nuts and bolts
The logistics of flying the Air Safari go something like this. It’s held over a 10-day period from Tuesday March 23 to Thursday April 3. The two days prior to the start of the event are put aside for arriving aircraft and crew to pass registration and scrutineering, and to attend the opening launch and dinner party.
The Air Safari then starts in Ardmore on the North Island before criss-crossing its way back and forth over the countryside and eventually finishing in Queenstown on the South Island.
This allows pilots and crew the opportunity to attend the Warbirds Over Wanaka Airshow, held near Queenstown every two years. Being one of the top four Warbird airshows in the world, this is something every pilot should see.
Of the 10 safari days, eight are flying days and two are days off for free time to see the local area. Each flying day is broken up into two legs - one flown before lunch and the other after lunch, while arriving at each day’s final destination before dinner.
The layout of New Zealand, tall but narrow, lends itself to some pretty smart flight planning. Each flying day’s departure and final destination points aren’t too far apart from each other, which allows the committee to wait out bad weather to see if things will improve. If they don’t, a shortened leg can be arranged to take us on a more direct route to that day’s final destination. Trying to organise 70-odd aircraft all operating under VFR criteria, and with varying experience levels, is a feat in itself.
The general route of the safari has already been known to us for quite some time through information on the website. However the exact, detailed route for each leg is only handed out to crews about an hour before the commencement of each particular leg. Each crew then calculates an Estimated Elapsed Time (EET) for the leg and hands it into the committee.
Dedicated members of the committee then position themselves at the starting point, hence my receiving a 10-second countdown with a flag-drop at the threshold, and another lot at the finish point with binoculars and radio. They record our actual elapsed time versus our EET, and award points based on how close our estimate is to our actual time.
In addition, each leg has numerous questions about the waypoints that make up the route, and again the more correct answers the more points the team earns.
Now some teams take all the EET’s and waypoint questions very seriously, while others take a more relaxed approach to the event. We fall into the latter category, a decision that’s made somewhat easier for us thanks to our first day’s efforts.
We take off on day one with all good intentions of giving it a go - even if we don’t expect to win, we figure we might as well give it a shot. We certainly aren’t expecting great things as we’re up against teams with superior local knowledge and some rumoured to be making use of high resolution topographical maps and Google Earth on laptops.
But as we approach the first waypoint, and hence the first question, we have our eyes peeled. We’re looking for the colour of the walls of a certain factory in this particular town. Now seriously, how hard could this be - a simple colour of a simple factory in a small town. Well, damned if either of us can find it! We’re momentarily tempted to do an orbit to check again, but quickly remember another Air Safari rule - no orbits!
The reason for this rule becomes clear as we imagine 70-odd VFR aircraft all doing left and right orbits at various altitudes around the same waypoint - a surefire recipe for disaster. So we continue on.
It gets worse. At the next waypoint the question is something like, “note the colour of the roof of the last house at the end of the road on a certain peninsula”. Now we’re thinking we’ve got this one for sure. A peninsula has got to end at a point, so how can we stuff this one up? Quite easily, as it turned out.
We could swear we could see two peninsulas, both with more than one road to follow, so we toss a coin, picked one, and move onto the next waypoint and question. You can start to see where this is going. We quickly realise that the committee members who came up with these questions are cunning buggers, and us fools for thinking it was going to be easy.
After a disappointing, but visually stunning first leg, we hook into a lovely lunch put on by the local aero club. This becomes a regular event each day as the local aero clubs outdo themselves, putting on great feasts for a bunch of hungry, and some would say, navigationally challenged pilots.
We spend the next couple hours swapping stories of how good or bad we thought we went in the previous leg, and busily calculating our EET for the next leg. Before each flight the committee holds a briefing for all crew members that includes any last minute route changes, weather updates, relevant NOTAMS, SOP’s to be followed at particular aerodromes, and acknowledgements and thanks to the local organisations and aero clubs.
Off we set on the second leg for the day, determined to do better than the first leg. But our efforts are hampered when I realise that I’ve left our flight plan for this leg sitting on top of the toilet cistern, where I figured it would be safe while I did my business. I never saw it again. At this point our decision to not take things too seriously is sealed and we decide to enjoy the big picture of what the NZ countryside has to offer.
We finally arrive at our overnight destination after having flown over some amazing coastal scenery. The evening involves a dinner arranged by the local aero club along with some entertainment and a talk by a local dignitary or celebrity in the aviation industry. There certainly isn’t a shortage of things to eat, see or do.
We repeat this scenario daily for the duration of the safari. Flight paths take us over amazing snow-capped mountains, down through valley gorges, along beautiful coastlines with all their little private scenic bays, and around volcanoes that are, for the most part, extinct.
Everyone’s heard of ‘Murphy’ and his ‘law’, right? Sometimes when he hasn’t payed you a visit for a while, you begin to think maybe he’s forgotten your number and has just left you to be on your merry way. Then out of the blue, bam! He rears his ugly face again.
At one of our lunch stops we’re taxiing our Diamond DA40XLS, aka ’Safari 39’, over some rough and marshy ground in an attempt to get it to the refuelling bowser. No sooner have we got it onto the tarmac we realises we have a flat front tyre. On closer inspection of the aircraft, we also notice that the leading edges of our timber composite prop blades now have some new and rather unappealing dings in them.
This damage was most likely caused by a combination of the higher RPM used to taxi over the rough terrain, a rapidly deflating front tyre, and the local volcanic pumice rock being picked up easily into the prop.
To our rescue comes Peter McCarty, from Hawker Pacific NZ, who is the designated Air Safari’s mechanic and is travelling along with the Safari in a Maule. Peter has to carry enough tools and spare parts in this Maule to cover any eventuality that may arise with a myriad of different light aircraft types over the 10-day period.
At times his Maule reminds me of Dr Who’s Tardis - bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. The number of bits and pieces and obscure items and tools that come out of that Maule to fix not only our problems but many others along the way is just amazing.
If it wasn’t for Peter our Air Safari would have ended right there. To top it off, just when we thought we’d received our fill of Mr Murphy, only two days after our first mechanical challenge, a morning pre-flight inspection reveals yet another flat tyre. This time one of the main wheels had managed to find a four-inch nail.
I don’t know what that is
So far Safari 39 has had moments at being at first navigationally, and more recently mechanically, challenged. But it’s not too long before an opportunity presents itself - not to redeem ourselves but to prove just how procedurally challenged we could get.
As part of each teams’ registration package, we were issued with a booklet that had relevant information plus approach and departure procedures for every aerodrome we were going to use during the course of the safari.
At one such airfield - Gisbourne - our booklet says we should expect a clearance to land on Grass RWY32. During the actual approach we are cleared for Sealed RWY32, so we continue to fly an approach for a base and final for Sealed RWY32. Somewhere on mid-final I start second guessing myself as I believe, according to our official Safari booklet at least, that we’re supposed to be on final for Grass RWY32, not Sealed RWY32.
My only problem now is trying to get a call into the Class D TWR controller to confirm this. Waiting for a gap in the radio chatter to ask a question becomes a pointless exercise, as there were 70 other safari aircraft all trying to get into the area at the same time.
Now, in hindsight everything is 20/20, so I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me to find that the actual Grass RWY32 was about 100 metres off to our right.
However, at that exact moment a small area of trees is obscuring the runway threshold and the best piece of grass I can find is the grass just off the right of the runway but still inside the gable markers, so that’s where I tell Steve to make the approach for. It certainly looked like it could be a runway to me, and even after touching down on this area of grass it feels nice and smooth.
It’s not until the controller gives us the command to “go around” that I think maybe our choice wasn’t the best. Moments later, the controller then says, “Safari 39, that is NOT Grass RWY 32 … in fact, I don’t know what that was!”.
We could just imagine all the chuckles inside the other Safari entrant cockpits after hearing this doozy of a stuff up. And, as if on queue, upon our landing on the correct runway the second time around we are met by several other safari pilots who cordially thank us for the best laugh they’ve had all day. No problem, glad to help, we’re here till Thursday.
Queenstown or bust
It’s the second last day and we arrive at Invercargill, the most southerly city in New Zealand. Known for its cold and rainy weather, it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Initially our flight into Invercargill proves very scenic with clear skies, giving us a false belief that its reputation is somewhat exaggerated.
But on the following day as we are all trying to get to Queenstown to complete the Air Safari, the true Invercargill shows itself. A morning of drizzly rain reduces visibility to below VMC, with low overcast cloud making it impossible for VFR pilots to climb above it, which meant that none of us were going anywhere anytime soon.
After several briefings by the Safari Director, the decision is made to bus everyone to the days arranged lunch stop, and then reassess the situation from there.
Now as far as lunch stops go this joint is right up there. So far during the course of the Air Safari we have visited some of the best aviation museums in the country. These included the Hood Aerodrome and its awesome collection of WWI fighter planes and one of the last remaining WWII F4U Corsairs still flying, to the Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) sponsored WWI museum at Omaka.
Today’s lunch stop is at The Moth Cafe in Manderville. The cafe and its associated museum and workshop lives and breathes De Havilland. There are excellent flying examples of all the most popular De Havilland variants you could possibly think of - Tiger Moth, Fox Moth, Dragon Fly, Rapide, and even a Comet under construction. We’re treated to a well-prepared, delicious meal, followed by free time to tour both the museum and workshop.
By this time we’ve received updated weather information and first-hand reports of several aircraft that had gotten through from Invercargill to Queenstown, however the flight path required some flying below a low BKN to OVC cloud base and through a valley pass to get into Queenstown.
While the majority of teams elect to continue onto Queenstown on the bus, about a dozen crews decide to return to Invercargill and make their way via the valley pass under the cloud layers to Queenstown.
As always our intrepid Safari 39 team is up for an adventure, so we too choose to return to Invercargill with the select few. And what a treat this flight turns out to be. Sure, there’s some challenging weather to make our way around, over and under, but that’s what makes it an adventure. We prevail over the nasty weather and conquer the valley pass to eventually arrive at Queenstown by mid-afternoon, and make our final landing of the NZ Air Safari onto RWY21.
As we park the Diamond and climb out and stretch our legs, it’s hard to believe that it’s all over. After all of the challenges, adventures, and experiences of travelling across an amazing country, we’re left standing on the GA parking area with only one thing left to do. We congratulate each other and take the obligatory happy snaps of ourselves complete with stupid grins in front of our other crew member, VH-DIV, aka Safari 39.
The following day I enjoy my first sleep-in in about two weeks. When I finally emerge from my slumber I have the whole day free to explore the town, and then later get ready for the final dinner party. There we have yet another great meal, followed by the telling of tall stories, experiences shared, money raised for charities, and contact details being swapped so we can keep in contact with all our new friends.
The Around New Zealand Air Safari 2010 was one of the best adventures in aviation I’ve had for quite some time. If you ever get the chance to do some flying in NZ be sure to take it up - you won’t be disappointed. Even better, check out the ‘Flying NZ’ website for ideas and ways on how to make it a reality.