Date: 22nd November 2012
It’s not every day your boss gives you time off work and it’s even rarer I’d imagine that he’d spend the day flying you around in an airplane. But alas, this is Queenstown, the place where anything and everything can happen! So on a fresh and sunny spring morning I found myself packed into a small Piper Cherokee, camera in hand, with Jon (the boss) telling me how long it’d been since he last flew and that he “hopes he remembers everything!”
I have to be honest and admit that I was a wee bit nervous as we taxied to the runway. Jon had been learning to fly, but his training was interrupted by the responsibilities of fatherhood a couple of years back. Now, after some friendly encouragement from Classic Flights in Wanaka, Jon was back in the pilot seat with a huge grin on his face. I meanwhile was crammed into the back with beads of sweat running down my forehead.
The last time I was in a small plane like the Cherokee we were buffeted by high winds and I kept banging my head on the ceiling. Luckily on this occassion we had ex Royal Air Force pilot Andrew accompanying us. Previously flying Eurofighter Typhoons over Iraq and Afghanistan, Andrew now enjoys the quiet life, flying at 75 knots over the skies of Wanaka and the Southern Alps. It’s not a bad life either I came to discover as Jon calmly pulled back the throttle and we rolled down the runway, taking off at what seemed like a running pace and climbing steadily over Wanaka township.
Up ahead in the distance lay the gleaming white peak of Mount Aspiring, which at 3033 metres is one of the highest mountains in New Zealand. In order to make it up over the mountain tops we’d have to maintain a steady climb for about 20mins before veering west, out toward the coast and Milford Sound. While we continued slowly upward I began to relax, confident in the professionals up front. The views in every direction drew the breath away and any nerves were soon replaced with a child like excitement and frantic shutter snapping.
The highlight of the flight came as we skirted the western face of Mount Aspiring, the morning cloud cloaking the Bonar Glacier and the jagged ridgeline piercing the sky. The shot above was taken just seconds before we banked left and headed for the coast.
The coastal route towards Milford Sound was a little sketchy, with low cloud causing some concern, but we were in luck. The clouds parted just enough for us to make our way through sheer rock walls to Milford Sound airport. For the final descent co-pilot Andrew took the controls and we nose dived towards the tiny landing strip below. Needless to say the touchdown was flawless, but I was still happy once we were on solid ground and I could get out to stretch the legs. I’m sure Jon was relieved to do the same.
The return flight was just as epic, this time flying back via the Eastern face of Mount Aspiring. Jon made an absolutely expert grass landing at Wanaka airport (at first I panicked thinking we were missing the runway by miles!) and we watched as Andrew swifly transformed from trainer pilot into vintage Tigermoth pilot, complete with flying goggles. It’s a tough life for these ‘top guns’ but it sure makes a change from the 9-5 desk job I can tell you.