GA in New Zealand

My husband Jared and I recently came back from spending a few vacation days in New Zealand (South Island only). When we travel abroad, we always try to look for opportunities to fly and experience the country from the air. Not only does it give you a special 3D perspective of the surroundings, but we are also curious to learn about the aviation systems in different countries, especially when it comes to General Aviation (GA). NZ made it easy for us to learn.

Just as a way to familiarize yourself a little bit with the country and its aviation… approximately 6,500 of its only 4.4 million people are GA pilots. People in NZ are greatly outnumbered by sheep, with over 7 sheep for every person. Geographically, about one quarter of the population live in the South Island, with Christchurch being the largest city. Over 20 percent of New Zealand is covered in national parks, forest areas and reserves.

GA was pretty prevalent in the areas of the South Island where we travelled. We only spent a week in NZ but it was a great and productive week with the help of a small campervan we rented. We flew into Christchurch (CHC), known as the gateway to the Antarctica, and did a loop back to CHC through Mount Cook National Park, Omarama, Queenstown, Te Anau, Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, Wanaka, Mount Aspiring National Park, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, Hokitika, and Arthur’s Pass National Park. During our time there, we noticed that GA is used, much like in the US, for business, pleasure, and as a necessity.

GA is the only way to get in and out of certain areas (as I mentioned before, 20 percent of NZ is federal land). I’ll mention two examples:

1) Tourists really only get a good view of the majestic national parks when taking a GA flight, whether it is a helicopter or an airplane ride due to access issues. A lot of tourists do actually take advantage of these opportunities so it wasn’t rare to see two or three aircraft at a time flying around these areas. I did one of those tours in Fiordland National Park. Amazing! More to come later.

2) There are so many remote areas in the country that sometimes, given different circumstances, GA flying is the only way to get access to these remote towns. The town (or township as they call it) of Milford is 73 miles (118 km) or 1 1/2 hours away by car from the nearest town – Te Anau. There is a stretch of the road that connects the two that often closes when the area experiences a lot of rain, causing land slides that are both hazardous to people and blocks the road with debris. Sometimes this road remains closed for several days at a time. Flying is the only way to get resources and people in and out Milford during that time. We talked with a local who was stuck in Milford for two days while visiting before she was flown out. Her car stayed in Milford for a week before she was able to go back to get it. Milford is not a bad place to be stuck in (it is truly a magical place to visit); however, she had to return to work and could not spend an additional week there. For those that remained for the week… food and supplies had to be flown in. As it is, the local campground and lodge only receives shipments twice a week but they are not prepared to be completely disconnected for an entire week.

And talking about Milford… the Milford Sound Airport (NZMF) is a beautiful, busy, and interesting place surrounded by fjords with a 2,565 ft. runway for daytime and VFR operations only. While there, both my husband and I swore it had to be a “one way in-same way out” type of airport regardless of winds; however, after coming back home and doing some research, it appears that takeoffs and landings can be done in either direction (although I would say that a high performing aircraft and a brave pilot would be required). Here is a document from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regarding departure and arrival procedures: Based on what we saw and observed, it appears that Runway 11 is preferred as a landing runway and Runway 29 is preferred as a takeoff runway.

During the day, NZMF is a very busy airport with both airplanes and helicopters flying air tours, taking and bringing hunters, bringing supplies, shuttling people from nearby towns, etc. However, come 6-7 pm, we found it to be a quiet and peaceful place with breathtaking views of the fjords around. My husband and I took this opportunity to (with permission, of course) walk the runway and take some pictures to share with you.

Aerial of Milford Sound (this is a photo of a poster)

Milford Sound Airport (NZMF) Ramp – This picture was taken when most aircraft were flying.

Runway 11 – Preferred Landing Runway

Waterfall to the left of Runway 11 – That’s how beautiful and natural this place is.

Runway 29 – Preferred Takeoff Runway

Cessna coming in to land on Runway 11

Parallel taxiway (doesn’t go down the entire length of the runway)

Terminal Building

I’ll also share with you my helicopter flight. I really wanted to rent a plane with an instructor and fly around with my husband for a couple of hours (this is normally what we do on our trips); however, our lack of time and some bad weather during the first few days of our trip prevented us from doing that. No problem, we will be back and a helicopter flight around Milford Sound and up to the Galore Glacier for a snow/ice landing really sounded great anyway. That is not something I can easily do back home in Texas so I took it. What an exciting flight!! The three German students onboard and I got to see the national park, the Airport’s tricky location, and glaciers up close and personal. During this short 25 minute flight, I noticed NZ uses some of the same procedures, signs, and nomenclature that Australia does (Jared and I flew around Sydney in May – look for another blog about this soon). For example, a runway pattern is a runway circuit.

Waiting for our ride in the helicopter after going to get a group of hunters. Notice the cargo compartment underneath the helicopter with their gear and equipment.

Glacier landing on Galore glacier. It felt like we were on top of the world.

Aerial of the Milford Sound Airport

Over the field for a left downwind

Final into helicopter area (tight area, I must say. You can see that in the first helicopter picture.)

We also saw a seaplane and a “water” heliport on Lake Te Anau.

To my surprise, I also paraglided for the first time while in NZ. My husband and I hang glided twice in Lookout Mountain, TN but I had never paraglided before. We were walking around small town Arrowtown (close to Queenstown) when we saw two paragliders up the mountain. I found it very cool and started taking pictures and videos when Jared said “let’s drive up and see if we can find them.” Well, he found them. We started talking with them (an American and a Czech) about paragliding and watching them fly when Jim, the Niagara Falls native and pilot, asked if we wanted to give it a try. You don’t have to tell me twice to try anything in GA so we flew tandem and had a blast. He was able to find a few thermals to keep up us in the air and do a few tricks until the wind started to die down and we landed by a cow field below the mountain. How fun! I might have to start paragliding back in the States.

Panoramic of the Valley overlooking Arrowtown, the Gibbston Hwy, Lake Hayes, and Frankton in the distance. This gliding location is just outside of Queenstown’s Class D airspace.

Paragliding. It’s hard to see us but you can see the canopy. Notice the very winding road to get you up the mountain.

Just having fun with what most of us know best – flying!

Both paragliders flying just before the winds died down and we landed down the mountain by a cow field.

While the mountain by Arrowtown generated a few good thermals, Omarama, about 80 miles to the NE, is world known among glider pilots for its strong lee wave conditions, ridge soaring, and thermal flying. It is common for gliders to soar hundreds of kilometers along the Southern Alps. Several national and world gliding records were set in Omarama and the prevailing conditions have attracted record seekers like Steve Fossett. When we drove by the town, we unfortunately did not see any gliders flying around but we did see they claim it to be “the gliding mecca” and I can see why.

On a slightly different note… we also noticed NZ seems to do a pretty good job at preserving their aviation history. While driving around, we saw two important pieces of history for the country: 1) Guy Menzies’ landing site from the very first solo flight from Australia to New Zealand on January 7, 1931 and 2) New Zealand’s first scheduled air service in Hokitika in 1934.

This is the nice plaque and information posted regarding Guy Manzies’ historic flight near Hari Hari. The flight, from Sydney, took him a long 11 hr and 45 mins over the rough Tasman Sea.

Although hard to reach (and see) because it is in private land, the windsock shown above is the exact location where Menzies crash landed. He originally intended to land in Blenheim, but was well off course and mistook a swamp as a landing paddock.

 The town of Hari Hari built this hangar to go into more detail regarding Menzies’ flight and accomplishment. Inside you can see a replica of the airplane he flew.

The building was closed when we were there but I was able to take this picture to try to show the replica biplane –> single-engine Avro Sports Avian IVA biplane G-ABCF “Southern Cross Junior”

Those are the plaque and information found in Hokitika commemorating the country’s first scheduled air service (Air Travel Ltd) founded by Bert Mercer in 1934.

 The original airport (aerodrome) in Hokitika was on the south side of town just over the Hokitika River where the plaque is located. The aerodrome’s susceptibility to flooding was problematic so, in 1948, the airfield was closed and moved to its current location on the other side of town (currently called Seaview Airport) by 1951. The old hangar in the picture above is still on its original place, by the plaque and information area.

Our very own Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor, visited NZ earlier this year also. He wrote a great article and posted an awesome video. If you haven’t seen them yet, I encourage you too. You can find them at: In addition, AOPA-NZ’s Web site is:

When you travel again, consider experiencing General Aviation (maybe with a local CFI depending on location). You will be happy you did. If you travel and fly abroad, you will also realize the great freedom of flight we have in the US and why it is so important to preserve it as is. This is one of the things we, at AOPA, do best and will continue to do so on behalf of our members.

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About Yasmina Platt

Yasmina Platt serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Central Southwest Regional Manager covering NM, TX, LA, OK, AR, KS, MO, NE and IA. She resides in Houston, TX and flies a Piper Archer. For regional updates and information, visit