A Day to Remember
We had just been awoken by gentle beams of light finding their way through every crack and opening in the old and aged drapery. Or was it the swiftly increasing heat? The air felt unnaturally stuffed, which made sense since it hadn’t been replenished for 12-odd hours. When you sleep in a space taking up less than 4 square meters, the air temperature rises quickly, particularly so when that space is entirely enclosed by glass. At 8 in the morning, we were already feeling that powerful greenhouse effect.
“We should have taken the luxury option,” said Kia, “maybe then we would be getting a proper night’s sleep.”
“Sure could have used the magnetic mosquito net and roll-down windows,” I agreed. “But at least the sun is shining for once.”
The weather was surprisingly lovely this morning, and although it was currently causing us much displeasure, it was, in fact, a welcome surprise. The forecast had been rather pessimistic, and after our first week on the south island of New Zealand, we were already getting used to gale-force winds and heavy rain.
“So what should we do today?” asked Kia, “we should probably take advantage of the weather, right?”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said, “but I don’t want to tell you unless it works out. Let me just go make a quick phone call”.
Off I went to make my secret phone call, while Kia started the daily process of packing down the car. We had chosen to drive around New Zealand for 6 weeks in the cheapest possible camper van we could find. The result was a Toyota Estima from around the time we were born, and although it had yet to cause any major problems for us, it might not have been the perfect choice for a road trip of this length. As with most things in life, though, it simply had to do with priorities. The less money we spent on our wheels, the more money we had for fun and games. For this reason, I didn’t blink when the voice on the phone quoted a price of almost 500 New Zealand dollars for today’s 1-hour of fun. You only live once, remember!
“Let’s go honey” I yelled enthusiastically as I came jogging back, “There’s quite the adventure in store for us today!”
As we pulled out of the government-run campsite, which to our amazement was entirely free of charge, Kia couldn’t help but ask: “So… where are we actually going?” Receiving no immediate response, she half curiously, half nervously, enquired: “What exactly are you up to?”
“Well, you’ll just have to see, won’t you?” I teased, before turning up the volume of our most adventurous Spotify playlist on the Toyotas screeching sound-system.
The drive down Route 6 was long, but scenic, as can be said about most of the roads in New Zealand. We had picked up some coffee on the way and were having a jolly good time enjoying the scenery, the clear blue skies, and talking about all the exciting things we had on our itinerary for the next few days. We were so preoccupied, in fact, that Kia barely noticed we pulled off the main road.
We were near Queenstown, which is arguably the adventure capital of the world. The town is renowned for its wide variety of extreme sports options, such as jet boating, bungee jumping, paragliding and sky diving. However, our destination for today was its less known little brother, Wanaka. A less famous city for sure, but with equal amounts of adrenaline-infused fun.
On the outskirts of the town, we pulled into a small side road leading us to Wanaka Airport. There’s only a limited amount of things to do in a small airport, so Kia soon started to figure out what was on the agenda. “Are we going flying?” she asked excitedly. Thinking about this for a short while, I said, “It’s not so much we that will fly, it’s more you that will fly and me that will be flown. If that makes sense?”
Looking at Kia’s puzzled face, I could tell she wasn’t quite following. “You will be flying… I mean, you will be steering the plane in the front seat, and I will be in the back seat taking pictures or holding on for dear life depending on how it goes”. There was a small pause. “Oh, and there will be an instructor as well, of course.” There was another pause before I hesitatingly asked: “You do like the sound of that, don’t you?”
“That’s an absolutely amazing idea!” Kia assured me, “I would love to fly a plane! Am I really going to do that today?”
Knowing that Kia’s childhood dream was to become a pilot, I knew of course that she’d be excited about the idea. Luckily, the weather was stunningly beautiful, with great visibility and not a cloud in the sky. Furthermore, the area around Wanaka is ripe with snow-clad mountains, turquoise blue lakes, and bright white glaciers. Taking your first flying lesson here would be just downright perfect.
Upon entering the office, or rather the huge open-space hangar, we were greeted by Tommy, Kia’s instructor for the day. He asked us to sign a few waivers, undoubtedly releasing his company of any and all responsibility should she crash the plane and cause us all to plummet to our deaths in a fiery ball of melted metal. He then asked who would be today’s pilot, and seemed just a slight bit surprised when Kia put her hand up and said: “That would be me.” Indeed, I have probably seen Top Gun a few more times than Kia, but ladies really do dream about becoming pilots as well.
Tommy lead us out of the hangar toward the runway. There, a sleek and what appeared to be aerodynamically efficient, beast of a machine awaited. A Cessna 172 Skyhawk, probably the most popular private aircraft in the world. Having a fear of flying, that fact did give me some sort of comfort. The Cessna 172 is a small, by any measure, single-propeller aircraft designed to fit 4 souls; 2 in the front and 2 in the back. Knowing my place full well, I jumped right into the backseat, finding it surprisingly comfy and spacious when occupied by just a single person. Kia was seated directly in front of me, and due to her, frankly, modest height, my leg space was several times that of an Economy class seat in a Boeing 747. The extra space came in handy because, as I was on photography duty today, I was carrying plenty of gear. Kia even entrusted me with her yellow handbag
In the front passenger seat sat Tommy. Tommy was Chinese, or at least spoke the language fluently. In case you are wondering, yes, that’s completely irrelevant for this story. More interestingly, he was wearing a full captain’s uniform, whereas Kia, our actual pilot for the day, was wearing an orange summer dress. It was supposed to be freezing cold at 10.000 feet, but, of course, that didn’t stop her from looking fabulous on her flying debut.
A quick fuel check was performed, and a demonstration of the multitude of gauges, handles and buttons followed. With the formalities out of the way, there was nothing else left for Kia to do but turn the key, flip the masters shift, start the fuel flow and turn on the aircraft. The Cessna came alive with a roar, and the propeller already turned too fast for the human eye to follow.
Taxiing down the runway was a breeze. Kia avoided all the notable obstacles, including other aircraft in the busy airport, and kept us off the grass. You may think it’s easy to navigate around an airport in a small town such as Wanaka, but nothing is farther from the truth. You see, Wanaka Airport is so tiny, it doesn’t even have a control tower. Yet we saw around 20 planes there. No one tells them who goes first on the runway or does anything at all to avoid them crashing into each other. That’s all at the pilots’ discretion. What’s more, for some reason, the plane is driving around at a steep angle, meaning the pilot looks almost directly into the air. I promise you, if you ever jump out in front of a Cessna (maybe to catch a ball or something), you will most definitely be driven over. Please don’t be that person!
Once on the runway, things were about to get serious. So at this point, Tommy did take over for a little while. Probably a wise choice. Although I always have full confidence in Kia, sitting there in the back, I sure didn’t mind an experienced hand helping us off the ground.
The way it’s done is much like you’d expect. Start by putting the aircraft straight and accelerating hard. The throttle of a Cessna 172 is a small lever on the dashboard, which you need to push to accelerate. However, you must not push it too hard, so it’s important you don’t go from nothing to full throttle in less than 2 seconds. If you do, you die, or something. That’s useful knowledge for sure if you ever find yourself in a Cessna aircraft. Once the plane is up to speed, you pull back on the wheel, and hopefully, you magically take off from the ground. In this case, everything went smoothly.
It’s amazing how fast the Cessna gets airborne. It takes just a few seconds and requires a much shorter runway than your typical passenger plane. I was impressed, actually. I’m usually quite afraid at this point of a regular passenger voyage, but the whole take-off seance was over almost before I noticed. So far, so good.
Now the plane was climbing steeply. Again, it seemed like you couldn’t see a thing out of the front window. Well, nothing except a clear blue sky, at least. I couldn’t help but wonder what the visibility was like from the front seat. Kia later confirmed she couldn’t see a thing either.
Apparently, this lack of visibility doesn’t matter much, because now, Tommy put Kia back in control. She controlled our ascent while he enthusiastically taught us about ascent rates, altitude, airspeed, and fuel flow. Because there was no control tower in the area, we spent a fair amount of time listening to other planes in the radio so as not to suddenly find them straight in our flight path. In short, there were lots of things to worry about for the pilots, but for me in the backseat, all I could do was take a bunch of photos and enjoy the increasingly amazing views.
As the Cessna continued to climb, we passed by Wanaka, the town perched prettily by the shores of a big blue lake. In the far distance, we could clearly see Mt Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. We were surprised to spot it, actually, because we had been at the foot of the mountain a few days earlier and now driven over 200 kilometers further south. Even as the crow flies, it was more than 150 kilometers away, which just shows how perfect this clearest of days was for flying in the mountains!
Crossing over Lake Wanaka, still with Kia in command, we admired the view of that beautiful, deep blue color of the water. Then our attention shifted straight ahead. We started getting closer and closer to the highlight of the trip, and we could see it in front of us, even though we were still climbing at a steep angle. The awe-inspiring 3,000-meter (10,000 feet) Mount Aspiring.
As we approached the snow-covered peak, we got magnificent alpine views on both sides of the plane. I must have taken a 1,000 pictures, joggling a GoPro and my iPhone in one hand, and a proper mirrorless camera in the other. I just couldn’t help myself, the views were out of this world. I told myself I should remember to just enjoy the trip, and so I did for a while. But being a photographer at heart (not by trade or skill), I couldn’t stop shooting for long. Then we crossed over a few icy glaciers, with beautiful blue crevasses, and the views just got better and better. If this is not the right place to take your first flying lesson, nowhere is.
Kia was instructed to take us left around Mount Aspiring, and she did so masterfully. She flew like a pro, with a steady hand and smooth motions. At one point, Tommy said: “What is there for me to do, now you are flying the plane all by yourself?” And Kia could only answer the obvious: “Just enjoy the view.”
We soon found ourselves level with the tip of the massive peak, and let me tell you, this is the way to see a mountain. It’s almost impossible to believe that such a giant rock can be climbed. You feel incredibly small, even when in command of an aeroplane. From that angle, it’s somehow bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. Bigger than life itself, it almost seems. Even though we’ve previously had the privilege of marveling at the 3 times taller Mount Everest from the summit of Kala Pathar, on this day, Mount Aspiring appeared to be the tallest and mightiest mountain in the world.
As a matter of fact, it is only the 23rd tallest peak in New Zealand. The native Maori people called it Tititea, meaning “The Glistening Peak,” a name which definitely rang true on this particularly sunny day.
Kia was so nice as to make her first 180-degree turn so that we could view the mountain from our side of the plane as well and to extend the visit for a little bit. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so we eventually began our return journey towards Wanaka.
En route, there were more glaciers, more alpine vistas, and more beautiful lake views. Of particular interest was the sight out of the left-hand side window, which showed how the snow on the nearby mountains had taken on a dirty, yellowish color. This wasn’t quite normal, Tommy assured us, but the explanation was logical nonetheless. The smoke from the severe Australian bush fires in 2019/2020 had been carried thousands of kilometers over the Tasman Sea and now covered the mountains in a blanket of smoky yellow. That’s another thing that makes you feel a wee bit small.
On our way back, Kia hit a bit of turbulence for the first time. Compared to a big plane, you definitely feel it in a Cessna. Still, I felt safer in the hands of Kia than I had ever done on a commercial airplane. Once the skies had calmed down, she once again got to demonstrate her turning skills with a 360-degree turn over Mou Waho, a small island in the middle of Lake Wanaka. What made this island interesting, was a pretty little lake in the middle of it. A lake within a lake, basically. Inception, you see? Okay, it was probably just an excuse to fly around in circles. Tommy again, was full of praise: “Is this really the first time you are flying? This is a really, really good turn”.
He then took over for a while, wanting to demonstrate to us that a Cessna can maneuver with some dexterity if it has to: “It definitely isn’t built for aerobatics,” he explained, “it just doesn’t have the performance for it.” But a quick left and right bank, followed by a steep ascent and descent, soon showed us that it could generate a fair amount of g-forces nonetheless. Especially in the eyes of a few green recruits such as ourselves. Feeling the rush of blood to our heads and the movements of our breakfast in our stomachs, we were suddenly very thankful that today’s conditions were excellent and didn’t cause much turbulence!
With Kia back at the helm, things became much smoother again. We seemed to sail effortlessly across green fields and turquoise blue rivers, back over Wanaka, with the rearview mirror full of snow-clad mountains. Sooner than we would have liked, but after plenty of fun and adventure, we spotted the tiny landing strip at Wanaka airport. Only this time, we weren’t aiming for the tarmac. For some reason, Tommy thought it’d be fun to try out the adjacent grass runway for our landing and so that is where we touched down. Again, all without drama.
Safely back on the ground, all Kia had to do was taxi us back to the hangar. Here, she managed to impress Tommy one last time. The thing is, 99% of people believe they can control the plane with the steering wheel, which quite frankly makes good sense. That’s how you control it in the air, and that’s how you normally drive your car. A plane, however, is apparently controlled via foot pedals. Pressing down on the right one makes you go right (duh) and vice versa. For some reason, this came to Kia instinctively, and Tommy was baffled. He almost didn’t believe us when we said Kia does, in fact, have a driver’s license and drives a car with a steering wheel like regular people. He was hugely surprised how quickly she let go of that routine.
Maybe she is destined to become a pilot? Only time can tell for sure! She has taken the first actionable step, though. Not just by having experienced flying on her own, but she even got a real flight certificate. 1 flying lesson done, 49 to go, and BOOM she is a pilot in New Zealand. That’s one more for the bucket list!
Video footage from the flight
To get a good taste of just how awesome her first-ever flying lesson was, check out the video below. Most of it was captured by Nick in the backseat, but Tommy worked some magic up front as well!
You may need to click twice on the video if you are on a mobile device. Make sure to turn on the sound. If you like what you see, check out some of our other travel videos as well!
Company: U-fly Wanaka
Experience: 1-hour Trial Flight
Location: Wanaka, New Zealand, South Island
Price: 429 NZD
Note: Incredible value for money as backseat passengers only cost an additional 30 NZD. The cheapest scenic flight we saw in New Zealand AND you get to fly the plane the majority of the way!