I landed a plane at Queenstown Airport three hours ago. My mind’s still a little blown away. It was quite intense.
I’ve never flown a plane before and hadn’t expected this 40-minute trial flight with Wakatipu Aero Club to be so involved.
When chief instructor Julianne Kramer says I’ll be controlling the plane as we taxi, take off, fly high around the snowy mountain peaks, perform a stall and land, I’m pretty confident it’s a little joke she probably repeats to most first-timers.
Nope, not a bit of it.
After a brief tour around the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, covering the physics of flight and what everything does, we taxi out.
The Cessna is dual-control and Julianne has almost 9000 hours of flying over 30 years so I’m in safe hands and she handles all the checks, switches, radio coms, and makes adjustments or takes control when needed.
Main runway, Queenstown Airport. Push throttle in gradually, counting 1000-2000-3000, engine noise and speed increases, exhilarating, pull back on control yoke, harder, harder, harder – liftoff.
There’s that slight smooth weightless feeling as we leave the tarmac and climb into the blue skies over Lake Wakatipu.
We head towards Glenorchy after dipping the yoke forward slightly to control the climb.
The plane feels surprisingly skittish, buffeted by cold winds, and my main fear is that I might push too hard on something and send us into an unrecoverable dive.
I tell Julianne and she encourages me to be more aggressive with the controls. It seems the Cessna isn’t built for loop-the-loops and you can pretty much throw it about and it will only respond fairly gently.
I’m shown how to hold the altitude using the trim, control the yaw, perform a stall and the procedure for a forced landing – that’s a crash landing!
It’s beautiful up here but I start to feel a little hot as Julianne explains the slow sequence of checks for a forced landing.
It’s a combination of slight motion sickness, the incredibly visceral experience, and apprehension about the landing. I might yet cover the bewildering array of instrument dials in a thick layer of breakfast.
But after a little cold air, I recover enough to attempt a landing. We head left towards Lake Hayes before looping around towards the runway.
There’s a flow of steady instructions and adjustments from Julianne as we approach. Pull back on control yoke and turn into the slight crosswind. Look towards the end of the runway, flaps down, holding the nose up as it slows down, back, back, back – and touchdown.
This feels a little like a proper balls-out life experience rather than some backpacker tourist ditty. The 40 minutes felt like 10.
I’d love to do it again. I think.