Up, up, and away

I had been watching the weather for weeks trying to find the perfect weather day to go flight seeing. Wednesday was the day. The front had blown through yesterday and when we got up in the morning the weather was looking really good. The temperature had dropped significantly so it was quite chilly.

In 2011, Susanne and I had done a flight around Mt. Cook from Tekapo, so this time the route we were going to take took us around Mt. Aspiring and out to Milford Sound (the blue route below).


Jason is a private pilot and has his own plane back in the US, so any chance to go flying was of course a great thing for him. We lounged around in the morning having coffee and breakfast. Our flight was at 1:30 in Wanaka, so we didn’t need to be in a hurry.

We piled into the car and headed up and over the steep and windy Crown Range Rd. which boasts the highest paved mountain pass in New Zealand. We got to Wanaka a bit early, so we just cruised around the neighborhoods thinking about which house we were going to buy. Some of the houses were spectacularly nice.

We went out to the airport and checked in….way too early, so we walked over to the air museum cafe and had a cup of coffee, which in great New Zealand fashion was fantastic. The woman who took the order asked me if I worked at the airport. Evidently you get a discount. I contemplated taking advantage of the employee discount, but decided that maybe my accent might raise questions. I said “no, can’t you tell from my funny accent?” She said there were a ton of Americans working here because NASA has their “Space Balloon” project based out of the Wanaka airport. I guess it is a program to evaluate the impact of cosmic rays and uses a gigantic helium balloon to carry instruments way way way up into the atmosphere.

The helium-filled space balloon from NASA

We finished up our coffee and headed back to the staging area for our flight. It was totally packed with people. I guess it had turned into a busy day for them, so they had to pull a plane into service that they normally was used to shuttle backpackers and hunters to remote air strips. It was an Australian plane that was a “tail dragger” meaning it had a wheel at the tail. These are the planes of choice for landing on grass and gravel.

Our tail dragger

Ryan was our pilot and a very friendly chap. We piled into the plane with Cynthia in the back, Susanne and me in the middle, and Jason in the co-pilot seat, and headed out over Lake Wanaka.

The weather was great and the air was quite smooth. We climbed up to about 7500′ as we headed toward Mt. Aspiring. The views were wonderful. At times it seemed like you could just reach out and touch the peaks. It is amazing how close they fly the planes to the mountains. It is reported the New Zealand pilots are the best in the world.


A lot of the snow fields were very brown. Ryan said this was from the Australian bush fire ash that had blown across the Tasman.

Brown snow from the Australian bush fires

We made it out to the Tasman sea and then circled around back through Milford Sound. There was a lot of air traffic and Ryan was pretty busy on comms. Jason pointed out a plane to him that was a bit close. I don’t think Ryan was overly excited about his co-pilot pointing out stuff.

The world famous Mitre Peak

We flew very close to Mitre Peak. Evidently some hairball dudes climb up the ridge without ropes. No thank you!

Milford Sound

We headed back toward Wanaka. On the way there we flew over this amazing looking house with a huge barn and gigantic swimming pool. Evidently, it used to be Shania Twain’s house.  You can now rent it for a very affordable $15,000 per night.

Shania Twain’s house

We came in for the landing and I heard Ryan make a call to the tower that he was bringing it in on the grass strip. At Wanaka there is a paved strip and a grass strip that run parallel. He put it down perfectly.

We piled out of the plane and back into the car and headed back toward Queenstown. This time we took the longer route around through Cromwell which is far less windy and hairball and also resulted in fewer complaints from the passengers that I was driving too fast.

We stopped at the store and got some lobster tails for dinner. Susanne simmered a smashed garlic clove in a whole stick of butter to help us get the lobster down. Yum.

We hung out, had a nice dinner, and watched a beautiful sunset.




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