Our New Zealand Flying Vacation

The "other" Land Down Under

We crossed the mountain pass at 6500 feet. Our destination was Milford Sound Airport (NZMF), below and off slightly to the left, elevation 10 ft. Matt, our guide was riding the right seat and called the tower for clearance. A distinctly New Zealand voice filled the headsets G'day Tango Alpha Romeo, you are cleared onto the standard arrival. There is another Cessner (sic) in the pattern but you shouldn't have any problem.

Milford Sound
The West Coast of New Zealand is known as the "Southern Alps" and for good reason.

No Problem? The airport was 6500 feet directly below us, the pattern took us out Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea where we made a 180 degree turn to the left and went back up the sound. All the while we were hugging the right wall of sheer rocks, which ran from as far up as you could see to the ocean below.

Trim and power were set for 90 knots and a 400 foot per minute descent. About every other sentence from Matt was "you gotta hug the wall of the canyon mate". Is he kidding? I was about to scrape the obstruction marker off of the right wing! Actually, we were about a Cessna wing width from the wall of the 2000 foot (610m) wide canyon.

Milford Sound arrival procedures in the Visual Flight Guide instruct to "maintain at or above 3000 feet until northwest of a line joining Williamson and Pater Points then continue descent along the northern side of the sound towards Dale Point. Fly inbound towards the aerodrome on the southern side of the Sound and report passing Stirling Falls. Cross the line joining Williamson and Pater Points at or below 1500ft." Whew!

Then dog leg around the mountain for a "straight in" approach to runway 11. There is also a paragraph about a Pilot Briefing. "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." No better advice has ever been given.

The 400 FPM descent works very well. It takes us directly onto the 914 meter long runway; all that is left to do is flare. We have arrived, New Zealand bush pilot style.

In May of last year Beth was about to throw out a direct mail advertisement card that caught her eye. It offered a flying vacation in New Zealand. We would be in Australia in January, neither of us had been to New Zealand and we both like to fly, this looked promising.

A check of the web site www.flyinn.co.nz and we were hooked. It offered a "self fly" New Zealand vacation. The deal includes the application for a New Zealand "PPL" or private pilot license (Aeroplane). We decided on a one-week package that included the PPL application and 5 days of flying. The service can best be described as a "Bed and Dinner" operation. We fly out in the morning and return to a gourmet meal in the evening.

Milford Sound
Our gracious hosts.

Goerdie Hill Station is an operating sheep farm on New Zealand's South Island and is a family run business. Matt and Jo McCaughan are the husband and wife team that keep it going.

Matt also happens to own a couple of Cessnas and is an accomplished mountain bush pilot with over 20 years of experience flying the South Island. They have a 1000 meter long grass strip on the farm. The aeroplane we flew is a Cessna Skyhawk II with as 180 Hp Pen Yan engine modification. It also has a STOL kit and a full panel of instruments. The New Zealand registration is ZK-TAR.

Back Country strip
We shared the runway with the local bovines.

One of the things that we did by correspondence and e-mail was prepare for the NZ PPL. I sent Matt a summary of my hours and he checked them off against the NZ requirements. Matt sent a New Zealand Aeronautical Chart of the South Island and copy of the Visual Flight Guide (Land Aerodromes) that arrived before our departure to Australia.

The Private Pilots license is important to the operation. As a licensed NZ pilot, Matt rents the airplane and comes along as a guide. If he did the flying, it would be a charter operation with tons more paperwork. He will still step in and fly the plane if you are uncomfortable with the situation.

Day one was spent with Grame O'Neill, an NZ Class B instructor. Grame would be a designated examiner in the US. He inspected my license, medical and log book. We went up for a basic BFR that included stalls, steep turns and a couple of landings, the last was at Wanaka (NZWF elev. 1142') for fuel. When all was in order he faxed all the paperwork to the CAA in Wellington. One curious thing that is included in the license application is a "Signature Specimen" in the upper right hand corner. The license arrives already laminated and in a plastic pouch and the specimen becomes the signature on your license. The next morning my PPL arrived by fax. The actual document came on Friday.

The next morning found us running cattle off of an "Agricultural Strip". Agricultural flying in New Zealand is known as "Top Dressing." The Agricultural strip is above the almost abandon gold mining town of St. Bathans. Along with the usual abandon post office, bank and other attractions is a still operating hotel with a resident ghost.

Saint Bathans
St. Bathans, an almost abandon gold mining town.

Leaving St. Bathans we headed south to Glenorchy (NZGY elev. 1255') and the Dart River.
Jet Boats
Jet Boats on the Dart River.

Jet boats (a New Zealand invention I am told) take tourists on excursions up and down the Dart River. The boats run entirely within a national park. When we reach the boundary of the park, we turn around and proceed at high speed back down the river. When the driver makes a circling motion with his finger, prepare to get wet. The boats have no keel or rudder and go sideways as well as they go forward. The drivers take full advantage of this.

Beth in the stockade
They finally caught up with Beth.

The most intriguing day started with the trip to Milford Sound. After buying lunch (a meat pie and sandwich) at Milford, we lifted off, flew out the sound and turned right up the coast to Big Bay. A beach landing was next on the agenda. Tide information is important to aviators at Big Bay. We arrived about an hour before low tide and had about a 30 yard wide beach to land on. The landing strip disappears at high tide.

Milford Sound
The landing strip at Big Bay.

Big Bay Hilton
Accomodations at the Big Bay Hilton.

Next up was a planned stop at the only place in the world where you can get an "off the shelf" gas tank for a Tiger Moth. The grass strip at Mandeville (NZVL elev. 335ft) was a throwback to the earlier and simpler times of aviation. The folks at Croydon Aircraft say if you can bring them a few parts and a nameplate, they can build you a Tiger Moth. I assume one of the parts would be a rather large bag of money. The Moth Restaurant and Bar was the local source of NZ$200 (at current exchange rates) hamburgers and a hangout for pilots and civilians as well.

Croydon Aircraft.

Stuart Island is the closest land to Antarctica and lies about 30 miles off the south coast of the South Island. The flight took us over open water so we all donned inflatable life vests. A local charter company that flies between Stewart Island and Invercargill owns the Ryans Creek (NZRC elev. 288) strip.

The bed and breakfast on Stuart Island had a variety of guests. To emphasize the remoteness, the evening meal was delayed because the cook had to take the commuter plane to Invercargill to buy groceries. We talked to several couples that had taken the same route by land and water that we had flown that day (except for Big Bay) and it had taken them three days.

Stuart Island
The beautiful harbour of Half Moon Bay.

Friday was fishing day with Captain John. John is a third generation Stewart Islander. His grandfather built his boat in the 1930's and he is now operating it as a charter fishing boat. It is on the third wheelhouse and heaven only knows what engine, but the hull is the original.

Milford Sound
Captain John is a third generation resident of Stuart Island.

On Saturday the east coast city of Duneden and the Taieri (NZTI elev. 85) aerodrome was the destination. This is another delightful grass strip that is the busiest small airport we encountered in New Zealand. As we taxied up, an RV-3 was in the run-up area, a 150 Aerobat was taxiing up for fuel and a 206 was dropping skydivers. We went to the fuel pump first and by the time we had taken on fuel and taxied away, there were 3 other airplanes waiting. Being Saturday morning was part of the reason but Taieri has a very active Aero Club.

Dunedin is also the site Speights Brewery the only brewery on the South Island. If it were not for the trip back to Geordy Hill, we would have taken advantage of their hospitality.

Beth left for home on Sunday so Matt and I had the plane to ourselves on Monday. We flew to another sheep station for coffee and pastries. This station is at the end of a one-lane road that was blasted out of the face of a mountain. They generate their own power from a hydroelectric plant on the property and the telephone service is by microwave. Most of the stations in the high country have landing strips and excellent hospitality. We also went up the Dobson River and practiced landing on a couple of agriculture strips along the river.

The NZ Fighter Pilots Museum in Wanaka was the last stop on the last day of holiday. This is a must see for anyone interested in Warbirds. The restoration shop is behind the museum and is also highly recommended.

Stuart Island
The NZ Fighter Pilote Museum has a great display.

The week long vacation took us to some of the best spots on the South Island of New Zealand. In 14.5 hours of flying, we saw more than a three week surface tour.
Matt and Jo are intentionally keeping this enterprise small, at least for the time being. Their primary income is still from the Moreno sheep so if you are interested, book early, and try to avoid shearing season.

Mike Armatta

Copyright © 2008, Beth and Mike Armatta
All photos Copyright © 2008, Beth and Mike Armatta