New Zealand is a highly popular tourist destination, and its Southern island a pure source of natural beauty, and visitor numbers increased greatly after the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Additionally to all this natural beauty, New Zealand has also many things to discover for an aviation geek. Some of them are not on the beaten track of the main tourist attractions, but well worth a visit if you are about to travel to this beautiful place.
Where? Southern Island, New Zealand
When? April 2019
Please note: The following is a random selection of things to do and things to see if you are an aviation interested person traveling to New Zealand’s Southern island. It is far from being complete, but/and all of it is based my personal experience.
Aoraki Flying Experiences & Glacier Landings
One of the coolest aviation experiences in New Zealand has to be the possibility to land on a glacier. Many companies around New Zealand’s Southern Alps that offer snow or glacier landing by helicopter, but only one company does it by plane. In my opinion touching down on ice or snow on skids is way cooler than ‘just’ taking a helicopter ride. Flights depart from Mt. Cook Airport, which is located not very far from Mt. Cook village. You can reserve the flights, but from personal experience it is also possible to show up and jump on a flight as there are usually some seats available. The flights usually land on the Tasman Glacier, but being April and thus early autumn / the end of the summer season the situation to land there was not rated good be the pilots. The decision was thus to go to the Franz Josef glacier, which meant a longer flying time and the additional benefit of getting more sights of New Zealand’s highest mountain, the Aoraki / Mt. Cook. During that time of the year the first flight of the day usually also gets cancelled as the conditions for the glacier landing are too icy.
When it is time to jump on the plane, you board the venerable Pilatus PC-6 Porter, and there is hardly a better aircraft to fly in a mountain environment. The most memorable part has been turning in for landing on the glacier and passing walls of ice and snow quite close. The landing happens upwards and is not as hard as you might think.
Roughly a quarter of an hour can be spend up on the glacier before heading down the glacier and flying back to Mt. Cook airport. Use that time wisely and soak the atmosphere standing on the glacier at 3000m above sea level – actually the Pacific Ocean can be seen from the Fox glacier on days with good visibility. For the aviation freak it will of course also be fascinating to get some nice shots of the Porter standing on the ice with impressive formations of stone and snow in the background.
Another great thing to do around Aoraki is a sightseeing flight. Taking the “Grand Traverse” flight experience from Lake Tekapo airport brings you within a flight time of 50min across two World Heritage National Parks and 200 km of New Zealand’s most memorable and breathtaking scenery. This includes New Zealand’s largest glacier, the Gasman Glacier, und the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers that spill into the rainforests on the Western Coast. With a good visibility you can also spot the Pacific Ocean while flying around the summit of Aoraki / Mt. Cook that has an altitude of 3.724m.
Warbirds over Wanaka & Aviation Museums
Heading further South from the Anorak area brings you to Wanaka and Queenstown. Wanaka is well known for “Warbirds over Wanaka”, which is amongst the major airshows on the Southern hemisphere. If the airshow is not on, the airfield is buzzing with helicopter sightseeing flights, parachute jumps and lots of general aviation traffic. Also there are the “National Transport & Toy Museum” and the “Warbirds & Wheels” museums to visit, both of which offer a range of historic (mainly WWII) aircraft up to fairly modern jets such as the B-57 Canberra bomber or the A-4 Skyhawk, which was the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s (RNZAF) last (and maybe final?) jet aircraft.
Queenstown prides itself with one of the world’s most scenic approaches. And it really does not matter which side of the aircraft you choose for your window seat. There will be spectacular sights of the surrounding mountains either way, and during approach and take-off. Pilots have to turn rather tight and late during the final approach and also during departure to stay well clear of the surrounding terrain. Don’t expect any large airliners though at this airport as it is only served by narrowbody jets (mainly Air New Zealand A320s) and turboprop aircraft. The only international routes go to Australia and are served by Jetstar and Qantas.
Air Force Museum Christchurch
Another fine museum focusing on the RNZAF is located in Christchurch. It is officially called the Air Force Museum of New Zealand and its location Wigram is not a suburb of Christchurch, but has also been the RNZAF’s first operational base. Today the hangars host an extensive collection of RNZAF aircraft from prior World War One up to recent aircraft and not to forget the New Zealanders who served with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and in other Allied air forces during World War Two. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm and offers free admission.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre Blenheim
Last but by far not least in this more or less random selection is Sir Peter Jackson’s “Knights of the Sky” exhibition in the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim. Surrounded by the beautiful vineyards of the Marlborough region the collection shows WW1 aircraft in spectacular and vivid displays together with original artefacts such as skin of fabric of Richthofen’s triplane in which the famous ‘Red Baron’ was brought down on April, 21st 1918.
The museum has recently been expanded with the “Dangerous Skies” exhibition that focuses on the aviation of WWII. Apart from the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka and Hawker Hurricane hanging from the ceiling, the remaining aircraft in this part of the collection (Yak-3, FW-190, Spitfire, Anson) are airworthy and regularly flown during the airshow at Omaka, which is featured in another report on this website.
New Zealand Aviation Attractions & Museums – Photo Gallery
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