Rising up to the challenge of her nerves, our writer goes up, up and away over Wanaka. 


My head was tucked tightly into a flying helmet held firmly in place by HG Wells-inspired aviator goggles. Thick leather straps pinned me to the seat and the fact my limbs were shivering had nothing to do with the crisp autumn breeze. “How are you feeling – you okay?” The pilot’s face nipped in and out of sight as he busied himself with buckles and buttons. “Yeah, I’m good,” I replied nervously. He laughed: “You’ll love it!”

He was right – I loved it. Every heart-pounding, nerve-tingling, breath-robbing moment of my first flying lesson was out-of-this-world miraculous. I’m an adrenaline junkie by design. I wasn’t born for adventure – I crave it despite my intense fear and anxiety. I say yes to adventure, even though on the inside I’m freaking out.

I’ve had a love for old planes, especially Tiger Moths, since I saw The English Patient on the big screen. The scene of the Count and Katherine Clifton flying over the desert really stayed with me, so when I moved to Wanaka and discovered Peter Hendricks offers Tiger Moth sightseeing flights, I thought, ‘Perfect!’ 

The 30-minute scenic flight over the beautiful lake, quaint township, epic mountains and up the mighty Clutha River had me laughing out loud, crying into my silk scarf and convinced I needed to learn to fly. And so it was that I found myself at the helm of a Tiger Moth.

Autumn is one of the best seasons for many things in the Wanaka region, and flying is undoubtedly one of them. Think calm, clear days, perfect temperatures, vivid sunrises and sunsets, and views that include golden swathes of lake and riverside trees.

You don’t learn to fly a Tiger Moth wearing jeans. Oh dear me, no. Instead, you don a leather helmet, vintage aviator jumpsuit, thick sheepskin blanket and leather bomber jacket. And if you’ve got red lippy handy, by all means rock it, baby.

With two small cockpits, Tiger Moths have been used as training craft since their beginnings in the 1930s. Because of their need for a steady, firm hand, they were the preferred training planes of instructors who wanted to weed out inept students. Both cockpits have full controls, so either pilot can fly the plane; the instructor sits in the front, the student in the back. Here we were, this was it – I was about to fly.

Like skydiving or jumping off a bridge tied to a rubber band, it’s all about the meticulous condition of the equipment and the skill of your instructor. I couldn’t see Pete, but I could hear him on the radio. I flicked the lever down to speak, then flicked it back to neutral and listened to the crackle in the headset as he instructed me to rest both feet lightly on the rudder bars, ready to turn the craft left or right as we taxied onto the runway.

Another thing about Tiger Moths – they don’t have brakes. Making our way to the runway saw us take several wide turns to keep our speed down.

Clearing for take-off sounded all very civilised (“Yes, that’s lovely. Alpha-Lemur-Juliette at a heading of blah, blah, blah, tracking west, landmarks, blah, blah”), but I was a shaky, sweaty mess. Excited? You betcha! Terrified? Yes!

It was one of the most brilliantly extreme things I’d ever attempted. Skiing, dog-sledding, mountain biking – of everything else I’ve done that has an element of risk, nothing has come close to taking the throttle and stick and pushing an aircraft into the sky. Euphoric, and more than a little emotional, I was channelling Amelia Earhart when Pete’s voice floated through the headset: “How’re you doing back there?” “Just dandy,” I replied.

We rose away from land, the rush of the wind teasing the wooden wings with little leaps and jumps. I felt every shift of the air and controls; senses on high alert, I tasted the sky as we climbed.

Flying in an open-cockpit biplane is kind of like riding a motorbike. The difference between this and the closed-cockpit counterparts is huge. Closed cockpits seal you off from the elements and create a sense of security and detachment. In the Tiger Moth, you’re part of the air – you can reach out and touch it through your outspread fingers; your breath is pure sky. And you can see everything.

Pete instructed me to head towards Mount Iron, a hulking glacier-formed landmark. Keep the nose up, but not too much; keep the wings level and a light touch on the stick and rudder.

Then we were over Wanaka, all quiet from up here. I imagined my friends and family somewhere down below getting on with working, studying, ordering coffee. Then I heard Pete crackle through the headset, “Okay, Carla, we’re going to do some real flying now.” Real flying? Wasn’t this it?

‘Real’ flying turned out to be turns. And waggling the wings. Oh, and an exciting test of letting go of the controls to see what would happen. Yes, Tigers need to be flown. Absolutely. Otherwise they fall – albeit gracefully true.

Using the ailerons on the lower wings, the rudder bars at my feet, and playing with the stick that controls left and right roll, Pete taught me some simple flying manoeuvres. He and his pilots at Classic Flights fly these darlings of the sky like Fred Astaire dancing Ginger Rogers across the stage. It was hard not to feel like an expert under Pete’s guidance. He explained how to manage the ailerons, and rudder to combat adverse yaw. 

We made a sweeping turn to the right of Stevensons Arm and followed the serpentine Clutha River back to Wanaka Airport. Landing is probably the most difficult aspect of flying to get right, and the most important. Land can be rather unforgiving on a fabric and wooden aircraft hitting it at 60 knots, so for my first time, I was more than happy to give Pete the control and simply mimic his moves.

Let an aeroplane get too slow on finals and it’ll fall out of the sky. Instead, you must line it up, bring it to the centre line of the designated runway, ease back to flare, feel for the ground, slowly close the throttle all the way off, and touch left and right on the rudder to stop the craft’s natural inclination to dance in a circle.

The front two wheels, or the mains, touch first. Ease forward on the stick to keep the tail up, slow down, and the tail gently drops to the ground. Then it’s full back on the stick to keep the tail down, using the rudder bars gently to keep it straight.

Finally – touchdown! Rolling across the smooth grass of runway 29, crossing the tarmac and guiding ALJ home, it all happened so quickly. Before I knew it, I was climbing down and patting her red and silver side.