Flying in New Zealand

Kia ora! I recently returned from a two week vacation on the south island of New Zealand. While planning the trip I came across several tour operators flying a myriad of small aircraft. The problem with traditional tours was that they weren’t designed for getting stick time. In addition to that they all charged per person and not simply per hobb hour which made them very expensive. Since this was my honeymoon I decided it wouldn’t be a smart move to leave my wife all alone in a field while I gallivant across the Kiwi skies.

Fast forward to day 3 in country and my wife suggests I do more googling. I decided this time to look for flight schools and not tour operators. After a quick search I hit the jackpot. Learn to Fly NZ is a family run flying school based at Wanaka Airport about an hour from Queenstown. They run a fantastic operation with a fleet of aircraft that is any pilot’s dream. When I visited they had two Tiger Moths, a Waco YMF, a Citabria, a Cherokee, and of course a few 172’s. After a quick phone call I learned that they also cater to visiting pilots who want to log time on their vacations. So I went ahead and booked a 172.

We walked into the school and quickly met up with our CFI for the day Ash. Ash had just landed with another visiting pilot in the 172. I got the impression that they do these kinds of flights all day. Originally our plan was to fly from Wanaka to Milford Sound. If we left the general area of Wanaka we risked running into serious turbulence across the mountains. It really wasn’t a big deal for us, as long as I got to log some time in country I would consider the mission complete. No matter where you are in New Zealand you are surrounded by beautiful landscapes and Wanaka is no exception. The wife was plenty happy sitting in the back seat taking pictures while I flew left seat.

We took of from the tarmac runway and headed over to Lake Wanaka. The views in this area are fantastic. The airport is surrounded by large hills and rivers. We flew along the shore of Lake Wanaka for a bit and then headed over to Lake Hawea. It was here that Ash showed me how you can see the wind patterns in the water. About half of the lake looked very calm but the other half showed disturbance from the air above. As soon as we cross into this area we started hitting the bumps. Prior to this the plane was flying practically hands off. Not wanting to lose our recent lunch we elected to turn back and head towards the field. We had already logged almost an hour at this point.

I had mentioned to Ash that I actually never landed on grass before. That is what happens when all of your flying takes place at big runway airports with towers and all of that nonsense. He suggested we land on the grass runway adjacent to the tarmac runway. Our approach to landing was about as standard as you can get using full 40 degrees of flaps on this N model 172. I managed to put it on without much bounce and kept the yoke full aft. My first grass landing can be considered a success. Ash mentioned how many of his students have never landed on tarmac before training at Wanaka. It is a reminder how different all of our training can be even though we may all hold the same pilot certificate. For example I know very little about mountain flying but your average pilot from Colorado sure knows a few things.

After landing and taxing back we met the owner and chief flight instructor Peter. Peter had just come back from visiting an EAA chapter in Washington. Judging by his planes alone you can tell Peter is the real deal. His Waco is the only one in New Zealand. He purchased it from the states and had it put in a shipping container to get down there. That is some serious dedication to aviation!

Overall I can say flying in New Zealand was a major highlight of our honeymoon. I highly recommend Learn to Fly NZ if you are in the area, they run a tight ship and most of all are friendly people.

Flying the Legendary P-51 Mustang

On Memorial Day weekend I checked a major item off my bucket list. Thanks to a gift from my fiance and parents I flew a P-51 Mustang. I searched online for dual control P-51 rides and came across an outfit based in Kissimmee, FL called Stallion 51. We all had to head down to Florida anyway for a friend’s wedding so it seemed like a great match.

The four of us arrived at Kissimmee Gateway airport Friday morning for the fun. The Stallion 51 facility is basically every pilot’s wet dream. Their hangar houses three TF-51 Mustangs, a T-6 Texan, an Aero L-39 Albatros, and large office space. We were greeted by the office manager Julia and our pilot Steve Larmore. I say our pilot because I decided it would be a great opportunity to surprise my father for his birthday. So I booked a 30min flight for him in the T-6.

Stallion 51 HangarSteve directed us to the briefing room where we went over what to expect for the Mustang flight. He made it very clear from the beginning that this would be a hands on flight. Excluding the obvious challenges like take off and landing I would be able to fly the maneuvers as much or as little as I wanted to. He also explained that we would be flying formation with another Mustang and the L-39 on the way to and from the practice area. We would take lead on the way out and I would get to fly right wing on the way back.

DSCN3685Once the briefing was over we walked down to the spotless hangar and got to check out the plane. To say the plane was beautiful is an understatement. It is completely spotless and perfect in every way. There was not a single worn piece of equipment or even dust for that matter. My particular Mustang would be Crazy Horse 2 aka N351DT. For a detailed history of this particular airframe click here.

After wiping the drool from my face we began the process of being inserted into the plane. I say inserted because you really do wear this thing. I honestly have no idea how a bigger guy would even fit back there but I fit just right. I buckled the parachute first followed by the aircraft harness. After putting on the helmet I was instantly transformed to fighter pilot bad-ass (in my head at least). The three planes were towed out of the hangar and after some warmup and waiting we taxied down to the active runway.

DSCN3734We took our position right of center line with the other Mustang on our left. After a few more quick checks the throttle came forward and the massive 1,700HP Merlin engine starting screaming. Even though I was only following along for the take off I could feel the immense power of the plane. It really wanted to break loose and do anything but track a straight line but Steve’s experience kept it straight and smooth. We were airborne in what felt like no time and on our way to the practice area in formation with me on the controls. Within minutes of taking control I knew why pilots love this plane. As heavy as it is (~8,000lbs) it is very responsive. It wants to fly and it has the excess power to handle any maneuver you can probably throw at it.

mustang-takeoffAfter flying out from under the bravo airspace and separating from the other two aircraft we started our maneuvers. The first thing we did was get a feel for the plane and work on some level flight followed by steep turns, slow flight, and stalls. What is strange about the Mustang is the site picture in level flight. The nose is actually below the horizon so it takes some getting used to to maintain altitude with outside references. As big and powerful as the plane is it wasn’t too hard to feel out and get through those basic maneuvers. But because of it’s shear size when you lose altitude you lose it VERY quickly. Just by accidentally dropping the nose a bit in a steep turn we were down 400′. On my first stall I think we lost almost 1,000ft because I didn’t keep everything tidy. The second stall was much more benign.

Now it was time for the real fun. I have never been upside down in an airplane before so what a great way to loose my acro virginity than a Mustang. First we worked on some wing overs in each direction. The entry speed for wing overs and aileron rolls was 210kts. Which is funny because I have never even flown a plane in level flight that fast before let alone aerobatics. For the first aileron roll I pushed the stick all the way to my left knee and the world rolled around me in that bubble canopy. It was simply fantastic. We did a few more aileron rolls and then finished our acro with a barrel roll. Entry speed for the barrel roll was 240kts. We pulled the nose real high and then started the rolling.

mustang-upsidedownWhile the acro was tons of fun at this point my insides started disagreeing with the rest of me. We called it quits and started our way back to meet up and fly formation back to the field. Flying formation was very hard. Steve was definitely helping me out on the controls. I always assumed it took a lot of precision but it was really surprising just how much you have to constantly tweak the stick and rudders. Even the slightest over-correction and we were 40ft farther away than we wanted to be.

mustang-formationYet another great thing about Stallion 51 is that they have a good relationship with the control tower. We flew formation inbound and over the field then did an overhead break to landing. Morristown (MMU) would probably call the feds just for asking for such a thing! I had the plane all the way down to short final as Steve worked the landing gear and flaps. We flew a long sweeping left turn down to final approach. It really looked like we were way too high but Steve warned me about that beforehand. Once we put in some more flaps and slowed down even more the plane started coming down like a rock. We were moving at about 110kts and right above the runway Steve took full controls and stuck a sweet wheel landing.

Once we landed and got out of the plane we went back to the room to watch the video and go over what we did. Steve filled out my certificate and log book. My top speed for the day was 290kts! As you can see it was an amazing experience and I highly recommend you try it at least once. But be careful now, it is quite addictive. If I had some money burning a hole in my pocket I would have probably stayed an entire week!

So thank you Anca, Mom, and Dad! You guys gave me a ride I will never forget. And of course many thanks to the crew at Stallion 51, you run a top notch operation.

McGuire Air Force Base Tour

In February 2012 I went on a tour of McGuire Air Force base with my buddy Matt. The purpose of the tour is to familiarize pilots who fly in the area with the airspace and operations that take place at the base. I have been meaning to do this write up for over a year and just lost track of the draft post here on my site. After some recent house cleaning I spotted it again so here it goes.

Our bus driver/tour guide/comedian for the day was Lt. Col. Dean “Deano” Owens, the 514th Air Mobility Wing Chief of Safety. We met off base in a nearby parking lot and were greeted by the Lt driving an old school bus. Our first stop was a McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender. This aircraft is part tanker part cargo plane. It’s multipurpose ability is rather unique according to the Lt. At the time there was no other plane that could simultaneously tanker fuel, carry passengers, and a load of cargo. Unfortunately the fleet is being phased out for new equipment in the near future. We were able to walk all over the aircraft and even go inside the boom pilot’s station.

After crawling around the KC-10 we hopped back in the bus and went to check out the control tower. We were able to speak with a couple of the men and women who work the tower on a daily basis. They gave us a brief run down of what it’s like and pointed out some of the equipment. Then we stepped outside on the tower’s catwalk. We had perfect timing because a C-17 was out practicing landings and take off so the tower told them to give us a little show. The short landing and takeoff capability of the aircraft is incredible.

The next plane we toured was a Boeing C-17 Globemaster. This is a large cargo plane. The inside is just a huge empty cavern. Calling it the Globemaster is actually pretty funny. According to the Lt when it was first built it lacked the range to fly across the Atlantic ocean non-stop because of some poor engineering. Boeing had to develop a special fuel bladder that was installed in between the wings along the roof. The C-17 is one of the few planes that can turn on it’s reverse thrust in flight. The Lt says it becomes a rather wild ride with the plane exceeding a 4,000fpm decent rate.

We ended our tour indoors with the RAPCON and simulator rooms. RAPCON is the approach control room. McGuire AFB has a large area of New Jersey that is under their control. This is the darkened room where the men and women you are speaking to on the radio sit. It is filled with radar screens and other equipment. One of the more interesting machines was the PAR station. Precision approach radar is a system used to guide a pilot using radar vertically and laterally all the way to the landing threshold. To put it simply the controller guides you over the radio and tells you to fly higher lower etc. There is no special equipment in the aircraft. Any pilot can request to practice this approach assuming they aren’t busy and more importantly assuming the pilot doesn’t actually touch down at the base. The next room was the KC-10 full motion simulators. They are much bigger than I expected and are of course full replicas of the inside of the machines. Just like the KC-10 itself these sims are on their way out for new equipment.

It was a great day at the air force base. Lt Col Dean Owens was not only informative but also very funny. The men and women at the base were all professionals and extremely welcoming. We were all proud to have such great people serving our country. In order to go on the tour you must apply by contacting the Mid Atlantic Aviation Coalition (Bob Checchio to be specific). The tour is free but you must apply in advance for security purposes.