We’re heading straight towards the side of a mountain, and the terrain is getting steeper all around us. Normally, when you’re in a plane, this would be a cause for alarm.
But, there’s one exception to the rule. Today our runway is the Tasman Glacier, and we’re about to perform New Zealand’s most spectacular landing in a ski plane.
Just like Pineapple Lumps, jet boats, and bungy jumps – ski planes have a special place in New Zealand’s history; one that, perhaps, many Kiwis don’t know about. And this story involves one of our greats: Sir Edmund Hillary.
We’ve arrived at Aoraki/Mt Cook Village on a scorching December day, and I’ve been struck with a few big surprises. The first being that this is quite possibly the world’s most beautiful ghost town. The drive along the emerald Lake Pūkaki, framed against Aoraki/Mt Cook, is usually heavy with traffic. But today, without the usual international tourists, we didn’t pass one car coming the other way. Not one.
* A guide to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park: When to go, where to stay and what to do
* Mackenzie Country: Stargaze, play in snow or take in the magnificence of Mt Cook
* There’s plenty to do in New Zealand’s winter playground
The second surprise came when we reached the idyllic little Mt Cook Airport, nestled around towering mountains. Just as we were about to board our plane, we were told this is the only place in the Southern Hemisphere where you can land on a glacier in a ski plane. And the technology was invented in New Zealand, and trialled by Sir Ed himself.
It’s common knowledge that AJ Hackett popularised the bungy jump, and Bill Hamilton invented the jet boat, but there’s one name many Kiwis won’t be familiar with: Henry Wigley.
The aviation pioneer had one of those lives that makes you gulp as you read his list of achievements. He flew as a fighter pilot in WWII; was a downhill ski champion; helped establish ski fields in Coronet Peak and Lake Ōhau; and was a crucial figure in the formation of Mt Cook Airlines, which would later become a core domestic arm of Air New Zealand. But, perhaps his most daring endeavour was in the 1950s trying to get a plane to ski.
At the time, there were planes with permanent skis overseas, but nothing that could take off on wheels and land on skis. For that to work, it’d take a serious bit of Kiwi ingenuity.
After spending several years perfecting the system, on 22 September 1955, Wigley and a passenger took off from Mt Cook Airport and headed for the Tasman Glacier. The skis were laminated onto kitchen formica and lowered using a hand-brake style lever that Wigley activated by leaning out the window. And it worked. So successful was the first flight, that later in the day, he took Sir Edmund Hillary up to the glacier, just two years after he’d climbed Mt Everest.
At the time Sir Ed was on to his next big adventure; part of an expedition heading to Antarctica to attempt the first overland crossing of the white continent. Training sled dogs was a crucial part of getting ready, and the best place to do that was up on the Tasman Glacier, where the ski plane ferried supplies.
One of the biggest challenges was getting enough food for the dogs; so mutton carcasses would be tied to the wings and flown up to the glacier wobbling in the wind. Sir Ed recounted with dry wit that “you [could] look out the window of the aircraft and see some good New Zealand mutton, against New Zealand scenery.”
65 YEARS LATER
More than half a century later, I’m sitting next to Dan Martin who has spent a lifetime in aviation and been flying ski planes for more than three years. Without even speaking to him, he’s one of those pilots you trust unquestionably.
After a short take-off (the plane has a very powerful engine) we head straight across the Tasman Lake, a graveyard for icebergs that have carved off the longest glacier in New Zealand. We continue to gain height, before the front of the aircraft is pointing directly at the peak of Aoraki/Mt Cook. There is no better way to appreciate the inhospitable beauty of our tallest mountain than flying around its frozen tip. What’s most remarkable is the enormous cliffs of ice – around 100 metres thick – that hang precariously from some slopes.
But the biggest surprise of the flight came in the next turn, to reveal the grandeur of the West Coast and the thick snow that runs for hundreds of kilometres up the spiny backbone of the Southern Alps. What’s before me is a desert of white, much of it is so smooth it looks like it could be a layer of cloud.
We cross Franz Josef and Fox glaciers; it’s fascinating to see the giant hulking ice shelf slowly crumble off the side of the mountains, becoming a frozen waterfall, and descending deep into the rocky valleys below. But what I’m most excited about comes next, as Dan crosses the divide and dips the nose of the aircraft towards the upper reaches of the Tasman Glacier.
We do a flyover of our landing site, before beginning a series of tight turns. It’s an unusual feeling banking steeply down towards terrain that’s rising in front of you, but Dan is beyond excellent at what he does. In an almost Houdini-like manoeuvre, he has the plane gently touching down on an upward slope. Think about that for a second: you usually land on flat ground, but we’ve just touched down on a significant upward slope so gently it felt like we were landing on grass.
In an unexpected move, Dan revs the engines to gain speed, so that he can do a “donut” on the ice. This is because he needs speed and power to steer on the snow, and turn the plane back around so it’s easy to take-off back down the glacier.
Our door is opened, and out we step into a world of white wonder – I’ve been lucky enough to take spectacular scenic flights all over the world, but this was stratospherically better than any landing I’ve ever experienced. My cheeks hurt from smiling.
We’re able to walk around 50m from the plane, but no further out of an abundance of caution. This isn’t Cardrona; we’re in the outback: Mt Cook style. A couple of kilometres down the glacier is a place Dan calls “no man’s land” because “you never want to head down there.” It sits in the shadow of Mt Tasman, and you can often hear – and even see – enormous chunks of ice falling into the distant valley.
I ask about the difficulty of landing on a glacier, and Dan explains it’s dealing with rising terrain. Usually, runways are flat, meaning if you need to “go-around”, there is plenty of room for the pilot to do so. However, landing uphill on a glacier is very different. There is a point of commitment (or decision point) where the pilot must land, no matter what.
Being a pesky journalist, I ask if he’s ever had to go-around after the decision point, to which he smiles. Once, some back-country skiers shot across the path he intended to land. Not knowing if there were more to come he decided to go around – but the ski plane has got lots of power and easily handled the last-minute change of plan.
Speaking of changing plans, I was meant to be in Europe this year experiencing a white Christmas. Once again, Covid-19 has shown me the beauty of what we’ve got right under our nose. This is a white Christmas, Kiwi-style. And, best of all, I’m still in a t-shirt.
More information: See: mtcookskiplanes.com or call 03 430 8026.
Prices for a 35-minute flight with glacier landing start from $299 (using discount code 100OFF). If you have a group of 8, you can go from $110 per person when chartering the plane for $990 (usually $3192).
Staying there: Hermitage Hotel offers stunning views of Aoraki/Mt Cook with rooms starting from $188. See: hermitage.co.nz
The author’s trip was supported by Mackenzie Tourism. See: mackenzienz.com
Brook Sabin and Radha Engling are travelling the length of New Zealand on a Stuff Travel nationwide road trip in a new Hyundai Kona Electric. The vehicle has 449km of real-world range on a single charge, for more information see: Hyundai.co.nz/Kona-electric.