A Pilot’s Incredible Flying Experience in New Zealand

Part two of our author’s challenging adventure flying in New Zealand. Les Abend

With two Cessna 172s, Flyinn had picked us up at the Queenstown Airport after shuttling our bags over from the main terminal to the general aviation side of the field. Jay and Sandy Rud, our good friends from the Chicago area, were still somewhere behind us, navigating the same bumpy sky in the other 172, all of us bound for Flyinn's home base at Geordie Hill.

I was mentally prepared to land on a grass strip amid a sheep farm, but a sighting of the runway wasn’t immediately obvious. Although not quite mountainous, the contrasting brown hues of the surrounding terrain distracted my search. Matt sensed my discomfort and offered to fly the downwind leg until I was oriented. We landed without issues, a smile etched on my face as we taxied between an opening in the wooden fence and onto one of the concrete tiedown pads. This would be home for the next week. Very cool.

Matt McCaughan was the chief flight instructor, owner/operator of Flyinn, our primary guide and proprietor of the sprawling merino sheep ranch. He would be joined the following day by Pete Clulow, another guide and flight instructor. Pete was a retired Air New Zealand 747 captain, and he looked the part. Lanky and tall. A relaxed demeanor. An ample supply of tousled gray hair. A matching mustache drawn wide across a sun-creased face. Matt had periodically attempted to recruit Pete over a five-year period until he finally relented. Both are incredibly competent and experienced New Zealand pilots.

After the airplanes were secured, we were driven to our cottages (quaintly renovated old farmhouses) and then brought to the main house, where Jo McCaughan, Matt’s wife, had prepared a delectable lunch. In addition to being unflappable in the kitchen, Jo is a warm and charming host. The Waldorf Astoria would have difficulty competing with the hospitality of this husband-and-wife team. Our cottages were amply supplied with food and our favorite beverages.

Over lunch, we discussed snippets of our North Island experience. If you haven’t looked at a world map lately, New Zealand consists of two geographic land masses, with the South Island about 14,000 square miles larger.

The four of us had started the adventure in the North Island city of Auckland with a five-day self-driving tour. The whole New Zealand vacation was originally an idea contemplated by the Ruds as a 30th wedding anniversary celebration, but I invited Carol and myself along with the caveat that we were celebrating our 20th. That being said, I proposed the flying part of the visit, an option Jay had never considered.

Flyinn recommends touring the North Island last because it allows for schedule flexibility in the event of weather issues, but logistics didn’t afford us that option. Despite the advice, our itinerary was a success, especially in regard to already being body-clock acclimated.

We experienced numerous highlights during our North Island drive. One was the unexpected discovery of an airport that had a well-maintained grass strip with the bonus of a craft brewery. Not surprisingly, the beer was aptly named Pilot Brew, with choices such as Avgas Pilsner and Low Vis Pale Ale. It doesn’t get much better.

Our pickup from Queenstown to Geordie Hill had been delayed because of the deicing required by the prior night’s snowstorm, so we were anxious to hop in the airplanes and begin the first day of the Fiordland Explorer Tour. It was November, spring season Down Under.

While still marveling at the landscape and the tranquility of our surroundings, Jay and I received the briefing at the “terminal,” which was a small red cabin near the tiedown pads. We preflighted our respective airplanes and launched skyward toward a windscreen full of spectacular scenery. I did my airline-pilot best to impress Matt with my soft-field-takeoff technique. Little did I know that additional challenges would test our abilities.

The first order of business was to land on a relatively short dirt strip accompanied by a respectable crosswind. Mission accomplished, except for getting slow on final. Note to self: Recovery with full flaps at approach speed in a 160 hp Cessna 172 is not for the faint of heart.

Les Abend's New Zealand flying adventure was so packed with new experiences that he couldn't even fit them all in two parts. Les Abend

After the dirt strip, we attempted a landing at a neighbor’s sheep ranch, but the farmer hadn’t made mowing the field a priority, so we moved on to another adventure in the town of Makarora. The turf strip offered us obstacles, a crosswind and a short runway. I was glad for the coffee at lunch.

While we cruised south on Lake Wanaka, Matt considered a landing on a grass runway along the shoreline, but the sheep weren’t cooperating. They huddled at the approach end. After aborting the landing attempt, we continued to a fuel stop at Wanaka Airport, a very active aerodrome with a wide, long paved runway.

And then back to Geordie Hill for a celebration cocktail at Jay and Sandy’s cottage, followed by Jo’s gourmet dinner of fresh lamb. It was an incredible first day that presented us with a good introductory taste of New Zealand cuisine and mountain flying.

Day two was a more benign flight to Dunedin, a historical former gold-mining town on the southeast coastline. The trip afforded us the opportunity to experience more mountain flying, or “valley flying,” as Matt accurately called it. Although the techniques of flying in close proximity to terrain were beginning to make sense, Jay and I still weren’t quite comfortable. Once I began to incorporate my glider-flying knowledge as it pertained to lift and sink, things began to click a little better.

One of the many pleasant surprises Les Abend experienced in New Zealand was an airport that boasted its own craft brewery. Les Abend

Most of our remaining days were indescribable. Unfortunately, the allotted space for this column will only afford me the opportunity to summarize. Sue Telford became our guide to the spectacular Mount Cook, a 12,000-foot snowcapped peak. She is an enthusiastic and very competent flight instructor, familiar with virtually every rock on the South Island. Sue and her husband own a hunting and fishing guide operation, making her input an incredible asset to our experience.

Other than the challenging approach into the iconic, canyon-surrounded Milford Sound Airport, or touching down on a pristine beach, or flying a Tiger Moth, or landing a Carbon Cub on a 300-meter slope at a 25-degree incline, or catching cod at a two-fish-per-minute rate, the turn inside a towering rock wall basin probably left the biggest impression.

Imagine using a pair of scissors to cut a deep V into a mountain-size pitcher of water. Leave some water at the bottom of the pitcher and then fly through the opening. Despite having learned the technique of flying at 65 knots with 20 degrees of flaps, the enormity of the sheer rock wall made me feel as though we were only moments from impact. Surely, our proximity was close enough to nick a nav light. The experience was sensory overload. Nothing could have been more spectacular.

Would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat — well, once my checkbook recovers, and once I learn to speak the language. I’ve experienced much in my 25,000-plus hours of flying, but for this airline pilot, New Zealand was the highlight of a lifetime.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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