My time in New Zealand was coming to a close, but with a week of great weather coming up I was keen to make the most of the flying opportunities remaining. I had been looking through the AOPA NZ private strip guide, and had found quite a few North Island strips which I hadn’t yet had a chance to fly to. I decided to spend a couple of days touring the North Island some more, knocking off new airfields. Joining me for the first day was fellow Brit Jade, who I met through a ride-sharing site and was keen to try out flying.
We departed from Ardmore under sunny blue skies and set course to the southwest and our first destination, the grass strip of Pukekohe. We’d be making an anti-clockwise loop around the 10 or so airstrips I’d selected for the day. Pukekohe is a long, smooth strip located next to a small industrial plant; the chimney of which is mentioned as a hazard in the published airport information. As I turned onto final approach, I could see why; it sat fairly close to the final approach course! The surface conditions were excellent; dry grass, with good braking (I didn’t know it at the time, but this was about to lull me into a false sense of security). We stopped briefly, but there was nobody around and nothing to see or do, so we started up and carried on our way after a couple of minutes.
Our next stop, Kauri Road, was close by; just a few minutes to the south. This strip is located at a private home, and is significantly shorter than Pukekohe. As I turned from left base onto final approach I noted that I was a little fast, and a little high, but the surface conditions from Pukekohe were fresh in my mind and I was expecting effective braking and no problems. I was wrong.
A few moments after I touched down and applied the brakes, I realised that I might have a problem. Planey was not slowing down nearly as quickly as I was expecting, and on this short ~400m strip it was already too late to put on the power and go around. With this airstrip being a little higher than Pukekohe, it seems that it was still holding a little morning dew. The end of the strip was marked by the gravel driveway, and then just a few meters further on was a hedge and a steep drop off. Going down here would surely bring the day, and indeed my flying trip, to a premature conclusion. I allowed the nose of the aircraft to start swinging to the left to try and prevent striking the propeller on the driveway, and finally came to a stop as the starboard landing gear gently slid onto the gravel. That was a bit close for comfort, and a valuable reminder about making assumptions.
Luckily, nobody had been watching my landing! We dismounted and walked across to the home. My knock on the door was answered by a friendly lady, one of the owners, and we were invited inside for a drink and a chat. The pilot of the family was not home, but shortly after we arrived his brother turned up. He was also a pilot, and had been driving by when he saw a foreign-registered Cessna on the strip; he couldn’t resist stopping in to investigate!
It would have been easy to stay and chat for hours, but it was soon time to move on. The brother told me about another private strip close by to the east, and gave me instructions about how to find it. We set off, making sure to use the full length of the runway, and started following these directions. We crossed the Waikato river, and found the Meremere dragway. Looking to the northwest, the private strip at Pukekawa came into sight, exactly where we’d been told. I flew a circuit and landed, pulling up and parking outside the hangars at the end of the runway. A gentleman emerged from the house next door, and offered us tea!
Having already enjoyed tea at Kauri Road we declined, but eagerly accepted his invitation to take a look around the hangars. The two large structures housed a nice collection of ultralight aircraft and other toys, and the setup as a whole was certainly a pilot’s dream. I felt quite envious, given how rare it would be to find a similar arrangement at home in the UK!
We departed from Pukekawa to the southeast, and turned on course towards Hamilton. While I had landed at the main Hamilton airport earlier in the year, there were a number of private strips in the area which I had not yet visited. The first of these was Lee Martin Road. When I had called to request permission to fly in, I was told that the only hazard to watch out for would be well-wishers driving across the runway on their way to the owner’s mother’s house; she was turning 90 that day!
Approaching Hamilton, I called up the local controller and received permission to transit their airspace on the way to the strip. He didn’t seem busy and clearance was immediately granted. I set up a steady descent towards Lee Martin Road, and flew a full circuit to check out the strip. It was fairly short and narrow, with the driveway crossing about three-quarters of the way down. There was a small aircraft parked on the runway next to the single, perpendicular taxiway; it seemed to spot us as we circled, and taxied off to the hangars. I set up for a final approach to the long half of the strip and came to a halt with plenty of room to spare.
I walked over to chat to the pilot of the ultralight which had been conducting some engine run-ups on the runway before our arrival. He was not the strip owner, it turned out, but a hangar renter. We spent a while talking about his flying adventures around New Zealand before heading back to the aircraft. We didn’t get the chance to wish the owner’s mum a happy birthday, but did at least spot her in time to give her a wave while taxiing out!
Our route took us next to the southern side of Hamilton, and the strips of Te Awamutu and Pokuru. The former was a nice smooth strip of shortly mown grass, which made for a lovely landing followed by a very short visit, as nobody was around and there was really nothing to see. We didn’t even shut down, just taxied back and departed again.
Pokuru was another matter entirely. We had a bit of trouble distinguishing the strip from the surrounding paddocks, and when we did, it looked like it hadn’t been manicured for a while. I inspected it carefully over the course of a couple of orbits, and decided that first I would fly a gentle touch and go to check the surface; I didn’t want to risk a full stop in case of soft ground or too long grass, leading to being stuck! The touch and go went without incident, but the strip was a little rough so I decided not to come back for a full landing, and we headed off to the east and Wharepapa South.
Wharepapa South was another slightly rough and ready farm strip, at least for my little pavement tires, but did at least seem to be a bit better groomed that Pokuru had been! After a low pass to check the condition of the strip we touched down on the uphill runway; there wasn’t much wind, and being a relatively short strip with quite long grass, I wanted to use the slope to help me on arrival and departure. Again, there was nobody around so we kept the engine running, spun around at the top of the strip, and departed downhill back in the direction we came from.
This brought us to the end of the short legs, and we struck out southwest towards the Taranaki area. Conditions were still excellent, and we could see Mt Taranaki from miles away, peaking around the clouds that were gathered around its base. Taumarunui Airport is a well maintained municipal grass field, founded just over 50 years earlier, and has a single long runway; a council worker was out mowing the grass. We landed and parked up at outside the clubhouse, and searched around the the honesty box to pay the landing fees. It turns out they’d removed it, though!
As we relaxed in the sunshine, a beautifully maintained Cessna 185 touched down and taxied in. Inside were a dad and his two young daughters, out for a fly to enjoy the great weather. He turned out to be a honey producer, with his own private airstrip at his honey facility near Lake Taupo; he gave me the coordinates, and invited us to drop in on our way through. We gladly accepted his offer and set off again towards Taranaki and the airport of Stratford.
Stratford is a recreational grass airfield sitting right in the shadow of Mt Taranaki. Nobody was around, but we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and have a look at the detailed information for the subsequent airstrips. Taking off from Startford, we turned south and tracked along the coastline towards our next stop.
This next stop was Waverley, a private grass strip near the shores of the South Taranaki Bight. The owner had mentioned that he would probably not be around, but that we were welcome to stop by. We circled overhead for a check of the strip, and it looked great; well maintained, with lush green grass and a beautiful house and garden next door. The strip is on a bit of a slope, so we landed uphill from the southeast and came to a halt about half way up.
From Waverley we started to make our way gradually towards Auckland. The first stop was Chateau, an airport situated on the high plains north of Mt Ruapehu. It’s the base of a flight-seeing operation, and one of their pilots had come across me online and invited me to stop in. He provided some weather updates as we set off; a bit of a cloud ceiling was coming in but there was still plenty of headroom. We climbed as we flew, trying to get a view of Mt Ruapehu, but today it was not cooperating and remained shrouded entirely in cloud. Eventually we gave up and began our descent towards Chateau.
Chateau is a one-way airstrip, with visitors strictly directed to land uphill, and take off downhill. Given the weather, no sightseeing flights were operating, so there was no other traffic to worry about. I flew a left downwind, and landed from the north, pulling into parking near the tour operator’s office. Nobody was there but my contact Anthony had let me know he was on his way, so we waited for a while for him to arrive. It was nice to meet him in person at last, and spend a bit of time chatting before we saddled up and were on our way once more.
Anthony had given me good instructions on the best route towards Lake Taupo, as well as telling us about some of the tourist spots we’d be seeing from the air along the way. We made our way northeast, under the clouds, and before long the expanse of Lake Taupo was in sight ahead of us. It took a few circles before we correctly identified the private strip; there was another private strip with the runway aligned in the same direction just a few hundred meters to the south! We landed with the lake at our back, uphill, and taxied to parking next to the hangar building. Our new friend from Taumarunui was there to meet us.
He met us with a tale of woe; when pulling into the hangar on his arrival back at base, he had not noticed that somebody had left a quad bike parked in the middle of the hangar. The running propeller hit the handle bars and wrecked them, as well as putting a good ding in the prop. A sad end to a nice day of flying!
This location, on the strip at Kuratau, was the headquarters of his honey operation and the warehouses next to the hangar contained raw honey, the processing machinery, and the finished product. He gave us each a jar of honey to take with us, and then gave us a tour of the “man cave” at the other end of the building row. It was quite the hang-out, with a lot of evidence of his hunting exploits!
We said our goodbyes and took off uphill, turning right and heading north. Our next stop was Tokoroa, a municipal airfield in the central north island. As we rolled out I spotted a few guys working on something outside a hangar, so we parked up and went to say hello.
They were busy with an engine overhaul but happy to stop for a while and chat, and one gentleman took us to his hangar to check out his very impressive Feisler Storch. This aircraft was designed in the mid 1930s in Germany, and used as a liaison and medical evacuation aircraft; it has an extremely low stall speed of just 31mph, and can land and take off almost anywhere.
He had just finished a full restoration and it was in beautiful condition. Checking out the huge windows, one could really get an idea of the amazing visibility it must have given, and the rugged landing gear revealed its capability for off-field operations. It’s a real “go anywhere” kind of aircraft! After admiring it for a while, it was time to leave; evening was drawing in.
Our final stop of the day before returning to Ardmore was Matamata. This airfield boats enormous grass runways, and it is one of New Zealand’s main gliding fields. Today there was a cross-country training course going on, the same one that was being attended by the glider pilot I had met a few days earlier at Centennial Park. Everybody was in the clubhouse having dinner, so I headed in to say hello and enjoyed a drink (of water!) before departing for the short trip back to Ardmore.
We parked the aircraft back up outside the Warbirds office, and tied him down. Jade and I drove back into Auckland and said our goodbyes; not sure how she felt after such an intense introduction to the world of light aviation, but I’d certainly had a good day!
The next morning found me back out at Ardmore, ready for another day of flying. It would, however, be a shorter one this time and keep us around the Auckland area! Joining me today was Jamie, a keen flight simulator enthusiast who was excited to check out flying in a light aircraft. He helped me pre-flight Planey, and after refueling we taxied out to the active runway and departed straight out to the east.
Today’s first stop was Waiheke Island. This island is the second largest in the Hauraki Gulf and certainly the most accessible, with regular ferry service; it has almost 10,000 permanent residents. The airport, home to a charter service, is a grass strip perched on top of a hill and requires specific permission from the operator to visit.
The strip is one-way-in, one-way-out, with parking at the southern end. We parked up, and I dropped into the office to pay the landing fee. The man at the desk, a pilot for the charter service, suggested a walk up the hill to a local vineyard for an early lunch which sounded like a good idea to us, so we set off; unfortunately, it turned out to be closed, so we turned around and walked back to the airfield! Lunch would have to wait for our next stop.
We donned our life jackets again and took off to the north, turning right on course for the Coromandel peninsula. I’d visited a number of the peninsula airfields back at the start of the year, but the strip at Coromandel town itself would be a new one for me. Our route took us over the main island and then out over the Hauraki gulf, with the Coromandel already in sight ahead under the azure blue skies. We flew a meandering route as we neared the coast, to check out the little islands and some of the boats that were making their way from here to there underneath us.
Coromandel airfield is set by the coast, with a steep hill rising up at one end of the runway. This strongly implies a landing from the coast, and take-off back in the same direction, and this is what we did. We parked up in front of the little clubhouse/terminal building, making sure to leave plenty of space for the two Cessnas belonging to a commercial operator that were parked on the grass to one side. As we were securing the aircraft and I was paying the landing fee a red pickup truck pulled up next to us, and the driver jumped out to say hi.
The man who emerged introduced himself as an ex-pilot, and the owner of the house on the other side of the runway. He had been curious to see a foreign registered aircraft arrived, so came to check it out. Kindly, he gave us a lift a few kilometers down the road to Coromandel town center where we were able to buy a couple of drinks and pastries, which we enjoyed at a picnic table outside the bakery with the sandwiches that Jamie’s wife had made for us. Our new friend from the airport even came to pick us up again when we were finished, and took us back to Planey!
As we were preparing to leave, a Cessna 172 showed up and we had a chat with the pilot. A club member, he was out for a flight to make the most of the good weather, just like us. We took off out towards the water and flew north up along the coastline, climbing a little to clear the hills of the peninsula as we headed for Great Barrier Island.
I had visited Great Barrier Island a couple of months earlier, and had intended to make a stop at Okiwi Station airport on my departure. However, on the day of departure the weather had turned out to be terrible and I’d had to fly back IFR; a landing at Okiwi, surrounded by tall hills, had been out of the question. Today I would remedy that, and check it out. We stayed high as we passed over the main airport, listening on the radio to the calls of a commercial Cessna caravan operating out of the field below us. Once well clear, we began a descent towards the narrow concrete strip at Okiwi.
There’s nothing particularly close to Okiwi, and nothing at the field apart from a small terminal shack. After wandering around a little, we put our life jackets back on ready for the final over-water section, and climbed back on board. Taking off to the east, away from the high hills, we gained a little altitude and then circled back to pass over the north end of Great Barrier Island and on across the water, abeam Little Barrier Island. I began a gentle descent as we approached Omaha Bay, performing a circuit to check out our destination, the private field at Omaha Flats. It was a good thing that I did, as there was a tractor trundling peacefully up the middle of it. They saw us and pulled into a field, clearing the strip for us to touch down uphill and park up next to a couple of based aircraft.
This was yet another “stretch the legs and carry on” stop, with nobody around. The field was mostly surrounded by fields with horses in, who seemed unperturbed by aircraft operations. We took off back down the hill, over the bay, and circled around to fly west over the mainland. Our island-hopping was done for the day and this next leg was a short cruise over the hills north of Auckland towards the airport of Kaipara Flats. This public field has a small terminal building and a number of hangars, but on a Tuesday afternoon, no people. There was, at least, one open hangar with an interesting old biplane to check out.
Our final destination for the day was the public airfield at Parakai, also known as “West Auckland Airport”. This was the biggest field we’d been to so far (Ardmore excluded), and there was a little activity going on. I taxied gingerly over the lip between taxiway and grass parking area, careful to avoid dinging the propeller on the ground, and shut down. I stopped in to the office, seeing that it was open, and took care of the landing fee. That done, we wandered down to where one of the hangars was open, with a man tinkering away inside.
This turned out to be George, and he was working on a very nice Bellanca Super Viking; the only one in all of Australia and New Zealand, he told us. It was certainly a beautiful example of the type; a 4 seat, 300 horse-power cruising aircraft which unusually is made of a steel frame for the fuselage, and a wooden frame for the wings, covered with a fabric skin. George had been lovingly restoring the aircraft over many years. This work was just about complete and he was looking forward to getting plenty more flying in.
There wasn’t much else going on at the airport on this lazy afternoon so we made our way back to the aircraft and fired up. The man in the office had directed us to the area of the grass parking area with smallest “lip” between the grass and the taxiway and we eased gingerly over it without incident, departing to the west for our final leg back to Ardmore.
Auckland is unlike many major cities in other countries, in that the airspace over the top of it has very little in the way of flight restrictions. As such one can fly almost wherever one likes, enjoying amazing views of the very picturesque downtown and harbour area. Our route back to Ardmore took us right over the city (including a little detour over Jamie’s house!), giving the opportunity for some great photographs of the iconic skyline.
Jamie helped me to secure the aircraft outside the Warbirds office, and we said our goodbyes. Before leaving Ardmore I dropped into the World War One hangar at Warbirds, where Frank was busy tinkering with a new arrival, a replica Albatros D.Va which had just arrived from Canada in a container and had recently been reassembled. This aircraft was an upgraded version of the D.V, which was introduced in 1917 to a poor reception. It was now back together in one piece, and certainly looking very striking!
The next day, once again, I made my way out to Ardmore. This time though I was in the company of Kyran, the son of the friend I was staying with; we were going to do some work to prepare the aircraft for the next leg of the trip. This included removing and mailing home anything that was no longer needed, and also trying to get the long-range HF radio working, something I had not yet managed to do despite attempts on the crossing from Australia, and the flight out to the Chatham islands. Before returning across the Tasman Sea to Australia I was keen to have fully operation communications, so I could get a little experience using them before setting out across the Pacific when the time came. We arrived mid-morning, and before we really got going on the airplane work, John the journalist turned up to have a chat.
Interviews complete, we finished the unpacking and repacking of Planey. This task always seemed to net me a box or two of items that were now surplus to requirements, and this time was no exception. It was satisfying to come away with a couple of boxes of items to be mailed home; while the total weight of these items didn’t really make a huge difference when compared to a fully fueled Planey, every little helps and it also offered a good psychological boost to be shedding weight, and carrying fewer loose objects that I had to find stowage for!
We set up the HF radio, and tried a couple of test calls. No success, so we taxied over to Oceania aviation as they had apparently fixed it for me a couple of months earlier! They tweaked a few settings and we managed to make contact with Auckland Oceanic! Kyran and I decided to take a flight and check that we could repeat this success when in flight, and it was a good thing that we checked, as we couldn’t get any communications going at all. Back on the ground, Oceania had another go at it, and this time we ended up with a reliable setup. Satisfied, we put Planey back to bed and headed back into the city, stopping at the “Pack and Send” to hand over the boxes of redundant gear for shipping back home.
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