Mountain flying in New Zealand

In March 2023 Sigi and I flew to the South Island of New Zealand for a holiday. The original idea was just to join a group of friends on a cycle trip along the Central Otago Rail Trail but it gave me the perfect opportunity to tick off a bucket list item.

As a private pilot I’m always on the lookout for challenges that both improve my flying skills and are fun. Some years ago, Dan Pearson, a member of the Redcliffe Aero Club, did a one-day mountain flying course at a flying school called “Learn to Fly NZ” in Wanaka, about one hour from Queenstown. Dan contributed an account of his experience for a 2017 edition of AirChat and I thought at the time that’d be a great thing to do one day. I’d visited the South Island numerous times for work during the 1980s and 90s and had good memories of the area and thought how cool it would be to fly there and see it all from the air. So, after being invited on the cycling holiday in Otago, I referred to Dan’s story in the old edition of AirChat and contacted I booked myself in for a three-day mountain flying course. We had plenty of time and it seemed that three days would give me enough time to learn the basic skills for flying in the mountains and visit a few spectacular spots while not costing the earth. Little did I know that it would exceed all my expectations.

Karl Hillary, my contact at LTFNZ, emailed me a link to some documents I should download and read before heading to NZ. They included useful information about mountain flying techniques, and the Queenstown and Milford Sound airspace.

We landed in Queenstown on 1st March. We knew we’d arrived because the Virgin pilot provided us with a rather “firm” landing, as they say, and I said to Sigi “I hope I don’t do any like that while I’m on the course.” Picking up our hire car we headed straight over the Crown Range to Wanaka, where we’d booked a motel for four nights. As we climbed up the Crown Range we had a view back down the valley and straight down the runway at Queenstown Airport and of the town nestled on the banks of Lake Wakatipu

Even though we’d landed around 5pm, it was light until about 9pm, so we had a great drive over the mountains and down the Cardrona Valley past the famous old Cardrona Hotel. I’d travelled this way on a motorbike in 1981 when it was still a corrugated gravel road but now, 40 years later, the road is sealed and is a much more pleasant drive.

The next morning Day 1 of the course had arrived. We woke to a wonderful sunrise lighting up the hills on the opposite side of Lake Wanaka.

I left Sigi to explore Wanaka while I drove the 10 minutes out to the airport and met up with instructor Karl at 8:30. Karl was a local who’d been working for the company for only 12 months but appeared to know a bit about mountain flying as he took me through an interactive PowerPoint presentation. He explained basics like never fly up the middle of a valley, keep to one side (preferably the right but it depends on the winds) so you have as much room as possible if you want to turn around. Fly on the side with the updrafts to give you additional lift and watch out for turbulence and rotors on the lee side when you fly over a ridge or pass. Approach a ridge at 45 degrees so you can turn and fly away from it if you decide you might not make it over. And so on. There was about an hour of classroom instruction before we headed out to the aircraft, a Cessna 172N ZK-MDR with a STOL modification on the leading edge of the wing and a touch screen Garmin G3X glass cockpit.

After a short taxi out to RWY29 we took off and turned to the east, where we tried some basic turns. Karl was illustrating how tightly a 172 can turn at 100 knots so I had a bit of an idea how little room we’d actually need in a narrow valley. Then it was off to said narrow valleys where I practised flying as close as possible to the right-hand wall and then turning 180s and 360s. From there we flew north over a couple of passes and Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook. It was perfect conditions. Clear blue sky and a bit of wind to create some updraughts and downdraughts.

Lake Pukaki with Mt Cook up the far end

As we approached Mt Cook, Karl told me we could legally fly above 10,000ft and up to 13,000ft without supplementary oxygen for up to 30 minutes and asked whether I’d be fine with that. It would allow us to fly higher than the peak of Mt Cook (12,218ft). Of course I said yes and soon we were climbing, climbing, climbing up over the Mt Cook airstrip and past the Heritage resort to get a magnificent view of the mountain and its glaciers.

Mount Cook peak is on the left

It was spectacular. We managed to get up to just under 13000ft before it was time to turn and descend via a neighboring valley to our somewhat late lunch stop at Glentanner at the northern end of Lake Pukaki.

Taxiing up the paddock we parked outside the visitor centre and cafe. We had a great coffee and munched on our sandwiches while enjoying the spectacular view of Mt Cook in the distance.

Parked at Glentanner with Mt Cook on the horizon

It was a pleasant flight back from Glenntanner, following a variety of valleys and crossing a number of passes, approaching Wanaka from the north over Lake Hawea. End of Day 1. A great day, surpassing all my expectations.

Day 2 Karl was off on leave, so I had another instructor, Austin. Austin Jones had been flying out of Wanaka for about eight years. Karl had told me that Austin knows every valley and mountain pass intimately so would be my best guide for the following two days. I met Austin at 8:30 after first stopping at the neighbouring Warbirds and Wheels Cafe for a decaf flat white. It’s a somewhat retro inspired place with furniture dating back to the 1960s.

Austin outlined the plan for the day. There was a bit more cloud than on Day 1 which would be good for learning how to judge which valleys to fly down and which passes we could (or couldn’t) make it over. We’d fly west, over the famous Skippers Canyon and the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, and head south over Lake Te Anau to Manapouri. After a lunch stop we could fly over to the west coast and up the coast to Haast and then try to fly back inland over the Haast Pass. Great plan.

Austin also introduced me to, the local flight planning tool. It allowed me to check the area weather, TAFs etc.

I also logged into, where you can find the NZ version of ERSA, aerodrome diagrams, instrument approaches and departures and other operational data.

Taking off over Lake Wanaka we had spectacular views of the town and the surrounding mountains and were soon at about 5000ft over Skippers Canyon and the Shotover River with a clear view of the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu in the background. The Skippers Canyon road, off limits to hire cars, is notorious for its sheer drops to the river below as you can see in the photo. It was originally built to allow access to gold mining areas in the canyon.

Skippers Canyon with road – Lake Wakatipu in the background

From there we dodged some cloud and avoided another light aircraft that was climbing through the valley below us and were soon passing over Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu.

North arm of Lake Wakatipu

Avoiding the controlled airspace around Queenstown we flew via various valleys and passes to Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri where we landed for lunch. The clouds were gathering by now so it appeared the afternoon flying and navigation could be more interesting.

Taking off to the north, we flew to the northern end of Lake Te Anau and then followed the Hollyford Valley to the coast.

It was one magnificent view after the other even with the increase in cloud cover. It was in fact becoming gradually more difficult to avoid the clouds but Austin was confident that we’d find our way so on we went and popped out on the west coast at Martins Bay, home to a rather exclusive fly-in resort for people who want peace and quiet and maybe a bit of fishing.

Flying north along the coast Austin pointed out Big Bay and the inlets that pepper the coastline and in about 20 minutes we were over Haast, a small settlement on the coast. It is at the base of the road over the Haast Pass, the only land-based route from Central Otago to the west coast. The clouds were BKN at about 2000ft by now, so we cautiously flew inland, up the valley, following the road, searching for a gap in the clouds. Finally Austin decided it was a lost cause and announced we’d fly back along the coast and find another valley to head inland. Retracing our steps, we made it to the Hollyford Valley and climbed between the clouds and finally made it over a pass. On the eastern side the sky cleared. We were back in SCT to FEW descending back over Lake Wanaka. The end of another perfect day.

The weather on the following day, Saturday, was not so good. There was a strong westerly wind blowing when I arrived at the airport. This would mean turbulence. We wanted to fly into Milford Sound and Austin said that’d be impossible with so much wind, so he suggested we delay our flight for two days until Monday, when the weather was forecast to be ideal. That was fine with us. We found numerous other activities to keep us busy over the weekend.

When Monday dawned, the clear blue sky beckoned as Sigi and I drove to the airport. Austin was ready and waiting. He told us the plan was to fly via a number of valleys and passes to the coast and then south to Milford Sound. We’d land there for lunch and then consider where to from there.

Sigi asked whether she could fly with us this time, as she was keen to see Milford Sound. Austin was fine with that so soon all three of us were climbing out over Wanaka once again and heading to the west coast, this time wearing Hutchwilco life jackets. These are made in NZ and are probably the most comfortable ones I’ve worn. We needed them as we would be landing and taking off over the water at Milford.

We had amazing views of Mt Aspiring and various glaciers as we headed west.

Mt Aspiring

After negotiating numerous valleys and passes we reached the coast where, after flying a further ten or so miles south, we descended to 2500ft for the flight into Milford Sound. We hugged the southern side of the valley past Mitre Peak and descended to 1000ft.

Entering Milford Sound from the coast

With an easterly wind blowing up the sound from behind, we’d have to turn and land into wind from the mountain end.

Austin described how I’d have to join downwind just to the right of the Milford strip and head directly for the mountains, then turn 180 degrees in the valley behind and align ourselves with the runway to land to the west. He coached me all the way through the approach, while Sigi did some Hail Marys in the back seat.

It was a bit gusty as we came into land, so with some slight turbulence the landing was breathtaking in more ways than one. Nevertheless, we had a soft touchdown. Much better than the Virgin landing in Queenstown. When we told Austin the story he said “Oh those Aussie pilots often have problems in Queenstown”.

It was the sort of day that pilots dream of. It’s why I learned to fly. The approach and landing was an intense experience but very satisfying.

It was a 5-minute walk to the cafe where we could eat our lunch and observe all the other day trippers who had mostly come in by ground transport and felt very fortunate to have been able to fly in. A perfect day for Milford Sound, which is renowned for its not-so-perfect days.

Soon we were back at MDR, donned our life jackets and started to prepare for departure.

Austin told me that after takeoff I should stay close to the mountain on the right side of the sound and we would experience the most lift we’d ever known in a 172. We taxied out to RWY29 again and took off over the water.

I managed to “hug” the cliffs on the right-hand side of the sound, having now become fairly used to flying close to mountain sides, and we caught an updraft that had us climbing at 2000ft/min. Not bad for a 172.

Reaching 5000ft we banked left and passed Mitre Peak and entered the Arthur River Valley. This is the valley that the Milford Track runs through and Austin had promised something special at the top of it.

Arthur River Valley

Climbing steadily, I could soon see a waterfall that was spilling out over a ledge before us. It was the 580 metres high Sutherland Falls. Continuing to climb, we passed over the top of the falls and entered a circular crater that contains Lake Quill, a brilliant blue alpine lake.

Austin wanted to demonstrate how good the 172 is at getting out of tight corners in the mountains so he told me to aim for the left-hand cliff and wait for his command before starting to turn. When we were really close to the cliff (Sigi saying more Hail Marys in the back seat) and a couple of “wait for it”s from Austin, he said “Ok, start a gentle bank to the right”. I banked right and put in some rudder but as I tried to turn the yoke a bit further noticed I couldn’t bank any more – Austin’s knee was (purposely) blocking his yoke (and therefore also mine) from turning any further. We were doing a 30-degree bank already and he didn’t want me to bank any more. He said that was plenty and sure enough we managed to stay far enough away from those cliffs to our left as we circumnavigated the lake, passing another smaller lake that was spilling into it from above.

Smaller crater lake that spilled into Lake Quill

Completing the 360 degree turn, and having thus proven Austin’s point, we headed back over the edge of the Sutherland Falls as the ground dropped away to the valley floor 600 metres below.

Turning right, we headed over the Mackinnon Pass (3,800ft) where we could just make out one of the huts used by walkers on the Milford Track perched on the ridge. That’s a huge climb up to the ridge on either side.

From there it may be a hard day’s walk on the Milford Track, but for us it was only a few minutes to the northern end of Lake Te Anau.

Sigi had originally wanted to catch a bus to Doubtful Sound that day but they’d been booked out, so she’d decided to come flying with us instead. Austin suggested we fly on to Doubtful Sound so she didn’t miss out. He gave me the task of planning a route through the valleys west of Te Anau to the coast, while avoiding clouds and mountains. I chose one with a pass height of about 2000ft at its end and made our way up and over, dodging clouds and staying on the windward side of the valleys to catch the updrafts as we went.

Fifteen minutes later we were at the coast heading for the entrance to Doubtful Sound. That was another dramatic spectacle as we hugged the right-hand side close to the mountains.

Flying over Deep Cove at the far end we were soon over the pass into a valley that leads to Lake Manapouri.

We flew over the Manapouri hydro power station that feeds the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter at Bluff. It would’ve been quite a challenge building the high-tension power lines across that rugged terrain.

Approaching Lake Manapouri Austin said “Oh it’s later than I thought. We’d better head back asap. Climb to 9500ft so we can fly direct to Wanaka above any terrain.”

So we climbed, levelling out at 9,500ft and passing over Lake Te Anau.

From there we did a bit of dog leg to avoid the controlled airspace west of Queenstown then crossed the northern end of Lake Wakatipu before descending over Skippers Canyon and the rugged mountains around the Cardrona ski field on the way back to Wanaka.

Treble Cone skifield left and Lake Wanaka in the background

Passing over Mt Barker, one of the visual approach points for Wanaka aerodrome, there was one last good view of the town and lake.

We joined midfield crosswind to land on RWY29 at Wanaka. The end of an incredible day’s flying.

Thanks to Austin, Karl and LearntoflyNZ for the three day course that worked out better than I’d ever imagined. The most amazing flying experience of my life.

A mountain flying course from Wanaka should be on every Australian pilot’s bucket list. I certainly recommend LearntoflyNZ as a place to do it.

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