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Damn, damn, damn.

I’ve just turned onto the final approach and I’m still 40 degrees off the centre line.

And if that’s not bad enough, I can’t even see the runway.

I recall Matt’s pre-flight briefing: “It’s a 800 metre runway. The only entrance/exit is about half way along. If it’s busy (and it usually is) try and avoid a back-track if someone’s close behind.”

Great! So I need a landing run of less than 400 metres as there’s a Cessna 210 and an Islander somewhere not far behind.

By the time I’ve considered the problem, Runway 29 at Milford Sound Airport comes into sight as we round the bend to exit the Cleddau Valley. And what a sight – a tiny concrete runway surrounded by near vertical mountain faces which are nearly a mile high! Try and stay calm.

How did I come to be in this predicament? Sheer greed!

Some years previously I had worked in Western Australia for several months and my wife and I had wished to visit old friends in Fremantle. As we had family in Sydney, it seemed sensible to cross the continent to the eastern shores which in turn, by global standards anyway, took us quite close to New Zealand, a favorite destination of ours.

I don’t think for a moment that it had escaped my wife’s notice that the itinerary I had proposed took us close to Geordie Hill Station on South Island. This farm in the Southern Alps is home to 8,500 merino sheep and a couple of hundred Hereford cattle spread over 10,000 acres.

So what’s so special about that? Oh! I forgot to mention that they also have a couple of beefed-up Cessna 172 and a 800 metre grass strip. I’d validated a New Zealand VFR ticket and had been introduced to mountain flying some years before. As we were passing so close by it seemed churlish not to visit!! So we flew into Queenstown (“Adventure capital of the world”) from Sydney on a stormy autumn evening with rain bucketing down and low cloud pierced by giant mountains. There’s no ILS at Queenstown and I marveled at the LPV (GPSS) approach that guided us safe from the cumulogranite.

The following morning was perfect with the unpolluted NZ air sparkling after the previous rain. Our host, mentor, pilot and farmer, Matt McCaughan, arrived at the airport to pick us up in “our” aeroplane. While very keen on checking fruit and veg., and soil contamination, we found the southern hemisphere international airports much more laid back on security issues and Matt was able to take us airside via a side gate using an electronic pass with which screened aviators were rewarded.

With Matt dealing with the R/T I was very happy to fly us up the Kaiwarau valley via the VRP “Bungee Bridge” (yes indeed: the site of the world’s first bungee jump and still immensely popular), past the grass airfield on Cromwell racecourse into the Clutha valley and “home” to renew acquaintance with Matt’s wife Jo, herself a pilot. Matt and Jo are regular visitors to Oshkosh, and to Sywell where they advertise their Flyinn Tours. We were accommodated in the Shepherds Cottage, noting that the actual shepherds and sheep shearers did not enjoy such luxury!

But if ever there was a day to “get one’s bum off the ground” this was it, so after the first alcohol free lunch for many moons we set off for the most exciting of destinations – Milford Sound.

I’d flown there before via Lake Te Anau so had some idea how intimidating it might be. I also had the benefit of a thorough briefing from Matt as well as studying the excellent “In out and around Milford” publication in the Good Aviation Practice (GAP) series produced by the New Zealand CAA. I’m grateful for permission to use some of their photographs.

In our pre-flight discussion we had talked about mountain flying techniques. Avoid flying up the centre of narrow valleys which might preclude the ability to U-turn if said valley is blind ending (Oops! Wrong valley!) or if the pass at the end is cloud covered as they often become in the damp maritime air. But it does concentrate the mind a bit when the right wing tip seems to be touching the waving grass/treetops. Furthermore if a steep reversing turn becomes necessary there will be no reference horizon – only great slabs of granite or dazzling ice cap. Later, en route Milford we put in some practice at the Dome Glacier where dirty crevasses filled the windscreen. My courageous wife manages to photograph the occasion whilst Matt soothingly intones “Surprising how much room you have if you keep the turn tight.” Really Matt? You must be joking!

We also brush up on crossing the many passes which are often as high as 5000 feet. Always cross at an angle of 45 degrees (so that if you don’t like what you see you can turn back) in level flight if possible (improve the view over the nose) and report your position on the common Fiordland frequency. These reports are quite a problem, not so much in knowing where one is (!) but interpreting the many other calls which are being made.

Whilst I was aware of the advantages of orographic uplift close in to the steep slope at the edge of the valley, it wasn’t till flying round Mount Cook (12,316 feet) later on that I appreciated the other side of the coin – the considerable down drafts on the leeward side of the mountain. With the throttle on the firewall and gently raised nose, we were still coming down at 1000ft./minute!

All these points (and more!) are covered in a further excellent GAP publication “Mountain Flying”  which can be downloaded from the NZCAA website.

Anyway, theoretical considerations done we take off on the westerly grass runway , circle to gain sufficient altitude to cross mountain range (snow covered last time we were here) to pick up fuel from nearby Wanaka Airport. I have some trouble orienting myself and only realize later that with magnetic variation at 25 degrees east the disposition of the runways is well away from the picture on the chart.

No evidence of any war birds here today. In fact the only other aircraft functioning (at the parachute club) is the New Zealand bred  Pacific Aerospace Cresco which looks very like a Pilatus with cranked wings. They were designed as crop dusters which are still widely used, often from small strips high in the mountains where the valuable aircraft is loaded, reducing the need for a long climb in thin mountain air – let the fertilizer lorry do the work! Interestingly enough in the early 1950s most of this work in New Zealand was undertaken in Tiger Moths (as many as 180 of them) with the superphosphate occupying a special container in the front seat!

By the time I’ve finished musing on this information, tanks are full of 100LL at about £1.00 a litre!

As we climb away past Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, that over used word “awesome” comes to mind. But I also remember those hundreds of flattish acres around Old Sarum where I’ve practiced forced landing, whereas here most of the peaks are at least 6000 feet with precipitous slopes and narrow valley floors. Did they really land small singles with tundra tyres on those small riverside shingle banks?

Initially we progress to the south west over the Roses Saddle (3900 feet) close to the Cardronna ski fields, brown and dry at the end of the summer, staying clear of the Class D Queenstown  CTZ. We track along Moonlight Creek – I wonder how it got its name? Many of the geographical features bear the names of early explorers, but I note a fair sprinkling of Dismal Pass, Danger Mountain, Terror Peak, Mount Isolation bearing witness to the ruggedness of the terrain.

As we turn north along Lake Wakatipu, I see the M.V. Earnslaw belching black smoke from her coal fired boilers which will have seen 100 years of service this year. Now full of tourists she was originally the only means of transport to and from the several farms around the lake.

Further experience of wingtip brushing as we pass Glenorchy Airfield where para-dropping is in progress. So we stay well clear and our proximity to the mountain side rewards us with a surge of uplift which propels us along the Dart Valley towards Mount Earnslaw, whose snowy peak glistens in the sunlight. Thereafter I lose track of our exact location but Matt. who has done it all many times before continues to chart our progress on 119.20 the Fiordland common frequency.

Finally I recognize Lake Adelaide, and we enter the eastern edge of the Milford Sound CFZ and we glimpse the airfield far below. We change frequency announcing our presence to the FISO who mans the radio. As we need 6000 feet to safely clear the pass and the airfield is only 5 miles away, we opt for a more gradual let-down while flying along the Arthur valley to have a look at the Sutherland Falls. Matt modestly claims we are looking at the second tallest water fall in the world and I don’t have the heart to tell him Wikipedia puts them at number 12! Maybe he meant “in New Zealand.” Although their height of the triple cascade has been confirmed at 1950 feet (think of that next time you do an overhead join at 2000 feet!) by modern scientific means, the first measurement is said to have been made in 1890 by a chap called William Quill who climbed alongside it with a measure, so it’s only fair that the lake at the top is called after him! If you have any thoughts of trying this yourself, be aware he fell off a nearby mountain a year later and his body has never been recovered.

Even more care is required at these scenic points where other traffic may be congregating, but all the pilots seem very disciplined in their position reporting.

So now it’s time to face the music and call the FISO for an overhead join. Actually this isn’t as intimidating as I’d expected once one gets used to the idea that the circuit is anything but rectangular – “An absolutely standard circuit pattern is not possible – the circuit is adjusted as dictated by the surrounding terrain” the GAP booklet tells us. Bearing in mind that refers to at least 3, mile high chunks of rock adjacent to the airfield, this is a wonderful Kiwi understatement.

From this downwind position and bearing in mind the afore said “surrounding terrain” it’s not possible to fly a normal base leg so we turn into the Cleddau Valley and perform what is almost a tear-drop reversal which is where the account started.

We arrive above the airfield at about 3000 feet and turn west along the Sound staying close to its northern side and maintain this till we pass Williamson Point when we begin descent aware that there may be arriving traffic above and departing traffic below and as we reach 1500 feet turn across to the southern side. I guess the Sound here is less than 400 metres wide (or so it seemed!) but following earlier practice this is easily accomplished. We join downwind abeam the 500 foot Stirling Falls which pour vertically into the Sound, tucking close in to the rock face to remain clear of opposite direction traffic.

For the record, it was a decent landing and no backtrack was required. The “flat white” coffee consumed at the tourist centre was one of the best ever.

The take-off isn’t as formidable as the photo suggests – turn left to climb out via Arthur valley or ease to the right as we did to fly along the sound.

Then as if we hadn’t pumped enough adrenaline for the day we return to base via beach landings at Big Bay (a 20 minute flight but 3 days to walk in)

and a quick circuit of Mount Cook

and the  adjacent Glaciers.

But that’s another story.

Photographs marked *are by kind permission of New Zealand CAA and taken from the GAP publication “In out and around Milford”. Other photographs by Margaret Prout