TIO NZ: Flying To Milford Sound
I’ve known a long time that Milford Sound was itself a reason to visit New Zealand. We were going to be close, but I didn’t see that there was enough time to work that in to our busy schedule – certainly we were not going to have the time to do the famous Milford Track. A disappointment, but we really had a full schedule trying to see New Zealand, North and South islands, in just a month.
Then two people we encountered said flying was the way to go – that is, if the weather cooperated. First it was Steve Hunter, owner of Lake Tekapo Cottages, who told us we could do the flight either out of Lake Wanaka or Queenstown. Then, on our way to Wanaka, Steve recommended lunch at Lake Ohau Lodge. There Alex, one of the managers at this pleasant stop, mentioned a friend who flies for Air Milford, told us we should definitely go for it, and when we do, ask for Jimmy.
The weather had been uncharacteristically fine for days on the coast, so we booked for the day we arrived in Queenstown, reasoning that gave us three chances over our three days in town to make the flight over.
We reserved on a flight out of Queenstown at 2 p.m. on November 24, leaving Wanaka in time to make the 1:45 check-in.
There was time for a briefing about the flight, time to watch one other group leave the operations building to board their aircraft, and then it was our turn: our pilot, James – and yes, not only was our request for “Jimmy” honored, but he asked if I wanted to occupy the right seat, which I reluctantly accepted – met us and we headed for our 13 passenger Cessna Caravan, ZK-SKM, the newest in Air Milford’s 3 Caravan lineup.
The plane still smells new. Oh, and I was kidding about being reluctant. This was the best seat on board to feel up close and personal with the plane and the terrain!
Once the aircraft was loaded (front first because of weight and balance), James started the big turbo-prop, and quickly we were taxiing to the runway, with a brief stop for a pre-takeoff check. My heart was racing: in nearly 60 years of flying, I have never gotten over the thrill of the takeoff.
Airborne we had a great opportunity to view the territory surrounding Queenstown on climb out, then very soon we were climbing over the lower peaks of the multiple ranges between Queenstown and the coast. The high country was in the clear, but a lower cloud cover obscured the terrain below. I hadn’t been watching the nav display, so I was surprised to look down and see Milford Sound through a break in the clouds.
We began a descent out to sea, then turning back towards the runway at the head of the Sound, descended through a larger break and I saw runway 11/29 for the first time. The vertical terrain walled in the Sound on both sides, with more vertical rock straight ahead.
Obviously this would be a one way in/one way out operation, in spite of the gusty tailwinds we would experience.
There were two smaller airplanes ahead of us and both continued on what turned out to be a downwind leg to the right of the runway. OMG! Are we too going to continue toward those towering rock walls and turn back to land?
This should be interesting.
As we continued into the blind alley, it looked like the right wing of the big Cessna would brush the rock on that side. The cul-de-sac opened a little as we flew in, turning a bit to the right to gain a little room, then starting a hard left turn that at one point had me looking straight at the vertical rock in front of us before continuing around with plenty of room until it was time turn right again to line up with Runway 29, looking down the length of Milford Sound.
While all this was going on the winds coming up the Sound were kicking the plane around, gusty and quite turbulent.
There is a saying in the aviation world that the flight’s not done until the wheels are chocked on the ramp. This landing was a case in point: James’ hands and feet were moving like a man with the shakes.
As he stopped the descent feet above the asphalt, we got a gust that lifted us again, then the hands and feet dance to get the plane on the ground, no time to finesse now, as the runway is not long – and there was another plane on final. There is no taxiway, so we must turn around on the runway and back taxi to the turnoff in time for the next one to land.
I’ve been flying for a long time, but I had to really admire the skill of this young man, who never broke a sweat.
When we pilots talk about “interesting” approaches a few standouts include the “backdoor” landing at the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, or taking a 727 into Butte, Montana on a low-ceiling winter night. Boys (and girls nowadays), James and his fellow pilots who fly tourists into Milford Sound do this crazy jig into that airport three times in a day when the weather permits at all!
These pilots are pros.
When I finally got the grin off my face, the plane had been offloaded, this time from back to front, again for the weight and balance.
I was the last to dismount.
The next part of our adventure was a 1 1/2 hour cruise out toward the mouth of the Sound, with those towering walls looming over us. We were treated to the views, to a group of fur seals lounging on a rock at the water’s edge, one solitary dolphin playing in our bow wave, at one point surfacing in a double rainbow from the mist of a waterfall.
Truly an amazing experience.
When we got back to the dock, James had just landed back in Milford Sound, having returned a previous load of sightseers to Queenstown and then returning for us.
I had to give up my seat in the front of the plane so another passenger could have the same unforgettable experience I had had. Sus and I sat in the back of the Caravan on the way home to Queenstown. It was a bumpy ride over the mountains, but beautiful with the longer shadows of the afternoon. Looking out the big side window of the airplane, I had time to look at the high alpine lakes and follow the drainages down to the lower elevations. It wasn’t as exciting as being up front, but a unique experience just the same.
The landing back in Queenstown was smooth, a different example of James’ skill, and a fitting end to a wonderful day.
Still makes me shake my head thinking about how close we came to missing this day in Milford Sound which, for me anyway, was definitely one of the best of our New Zealand vacation.