Thursday, January 19, 2012
I’m not a big fan of heights. Or maybe it’s gravity that worries me more. If it weren’t for gravity, or if I could control it, I could lean over the ledge of any overlook and not imagine myself plummeting to a gruesome certain death with an uncomfortable amount of time to ponder my demise on the way down. Over the years, mostly because of my job in radio, I’ve flown in helicopters a few times and truly enjoyed the ride. I’ve also been the passenger in a two-seater 1942 Stearman bi-plane and did fine as the pilot performed daring stunts such as barrel rolls and even a hammerhead. That’s where the pilot puts the plane in a vertical climb, straight up into the air, then lets the plane drop straight back down, 180 degrees in the other direction toward the earth before pulling up just before it seems you’re about to become a reason to call the local coroner. I was a bit nervous, however, as we took the stroll from the offices of Southern Alps Air at the Wanaka Airport toward our single-engine propeller-driven Cessna that we had booked for a family flight over and into Milford Sound for Ben and Marley’s 12th birthday.
Annie and I had been wrestling for days over whether or not to drive to Milford Sound, an area in the Fiordland region of the South Island of New Zealand. It was our primary goal on that Island ever since we first read about it doing our research on the trip. Mountains rise dramatically out of the water, creating an amazing juxtaposition and we really wanted to see it first hand. The challenge is that because of the topography, it’s not easy to get to on the ground. Te Anau is the closest town and it’s a drive of about two hours from there, and Te Anau is about two hours from Queenstown. Getting there over the twisty, winding roads of Southern New Zealand would cost us at least two days, putting pressure on us to get it all in before we had to be in Christchurch to fly out on the 24th. After much deliberation, we decided to look into doing a family flight in part because one of the women at the office of the apartment we rented said she had done it and it was the best thing she had done in her entire life.
I called the offices of Southern Alps Air and tried to work every angle I could to get any kind of discount possible. In the course of telling the woman on the phone the details of our trip, I found out her name was Ann. What are the odds? That’s my wife’s name I told her and we continued talking and I managed to get a ten percent family discount. The option we chose was a two-hour flight with a brief stop on the ground in Milford Sound. Our flight was scheduled for 2pm, which gave us time in the morning to check out the major local tourist attraction in Wanaka, Puzzling World.
The kids had spotted it on some travel literature we collected and it looked worth the time and the modest entry fee. The most enjoyable part was a maze that took up about a quarter of an acre and consisted of a series of wooden walls divided into four sections with wooden bridges that gave you access from one area to the other. The goal was to get to all four corners of the maze, with each corner marked by a tower with a roof of a different color: Red, Green, Blue and Yellow, and then make it back to the finish line. The decision was made to divide into teams, Marley and Me (think I’ll write a book and make a sappy movie—wait it’s been done and the dog dies! What a downer!) against Annie and Ben. We set off scurrying about the maze along with other families who were clearly doing the same thing. Every now and then our teams’ paths would cross and we would share updates on our progress of trying to reach each different corner tower and getting back to the finish line. Both teams found all four towers in about an hour but the Father/Daughter team made it back to the finish area well ahead of the Mother/Son team. After checking out another area of the attraction where they featured illusions, some of which were used in the filming of the Lord of The Rings movies, it was time to head out to the airport and our flight to Milford Sound.
Checking in at the airport office, we met the woman Ann who I talked to on the phone and then waited to meet our pilot. She introduced herself as Kylie, and led us toward the plane and said that Paul would be joining us in the six-seater. When checking in, I had noticed a display about the operation which included business cards with the names of Ann Cooper and Paul Cooper so I figured that was the Paul who would be coming along with us. I thought maybe they had an extra plane on the ground in Milford Sound and he was going to be flying that back to Wanaka. The kids got in the back seats, with Annie and I in the middle-me behind Kylie and Annie behind Paul.
I was brought up by Marilyn Bangert to imagine every possible worst-case scenario. My mom locked the doors of all the suburban homes we lived in while we were all at home, even during the middle of the day. Whenever we would drive through a sketchy part of town, she would turn to the back seat and tell my sisters and me to “lock the doors kids!” With that paranoid upbringing firmly ingrained in me even as I passed my 50th birthday, I quickly scanned the control panel to see if everything was as (I thought) it should be. As if, on my first flight in a Cessna, I would be able to assess some sort of oversight and tap Kylie politely on the shoulder and say, “you sure we have enough fuel? It’s only three quarters of a tank, how ‘bout we top off that bad boy” or “ I’m not sure the Fuel Mix gauge is working right, why don’t you give it a quick flick with your finger.” I did notice the dials indicated the fuel tank was almost at capacity and I figured with Paul along for whatever reason (Annie is a looker after all) he would be able to correct what ever needed to be corrected.
Kylie fired up the engine, and taxied out to the runway and we took off to the west, toward the Tasman Sea and Milford Sound. We all had headsets on with microphones which the kids seem to enjoy as much as the flight itself. Kylie told us right before take off that because it was later in the day, the winds were picking up some and she said it could get a wee bit bumpy when we got to the higher elevations to clear the mountains. The views were spectacular as we flew west, seeing snow-capped peaks, some with glaciers that seemed close enough to reach out and touch.
Ben and Marley were enjoying their birthday flight, peering out the window and making the occasional comment on their headsets. Wind gusts gave us a little push from time to time, but no one was reaching for the white paper bags in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of them just yet.
My concern level grew some as we started getting into some cloudy conditions as we got toward the higher peaks. I enjoyed being able to see where we were going and that was fading as the rugged peaks were becoming obscured by clouds. I was also a bit concerned as every now and then, both Kylie and Paul would inch forward in their seats, straining their necks to be able to see over the control panel, like the blue-haired lady driving the big station wagon in Ferris Buellers’ Day Off. Who thought it was a good design for the panel of gauges and switches to partially obstruct the pilots’ view? Who? Somebody who has a side business in body bags? My mom would have been beaming with pride at the thoughts racing through my head right about then: I wondered if Kylie would be able to regain control, possibly with the help of Paul, once one of the wheels clipped the top of a mountain and tumbled uselessly into a crevasse below. I also pondered what sort of, if any, cushion a patch of snow would provide during a crash-landing. My Velcro-strapped Teva sandals certainly wouldn’t be much of a help as we climbed down the mountain from the wreckage. Did you ever read the book Alive, about how the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes Mountains ate the people who were killed in the crash? I didn’t quite get that far in the various scenarios playing out in my head, but it was one of the next thoughts about to enter my brain when Kylie informed us that she was going to guide the plane under a cloud bank into a fairly wide valley, taking us out toward the sea for the approach to Milford Sound. That process helped ease my fears, and the view we get as we banked into the Sound was spectacular.
For one of the rare times in life, the expectation of an event actually lived up to its’ billing as Kylie flew the plane into Milford Sound. It was thrilling to see the landscape that I had looked at countless times online fly past as we headed deeper into the gorge.
The winds picked up as we flew into the sound and we could see the tiny airstrip ahead of us. I was hoping Kylie was going to take the straight in approach, but I could see she was too high to do that. She flew past the airstrip, as the winds buffeted the plane, before banking hard to the right and gunning the engine as we got into position for landing. The Cessna was rocking pretty well as she descended and Kylie struggled to keep the plane straight as the wheels got just a few feet off the ground. Just as the wheels were about to finally touch down, another gust of wind hit the plane, and for the first time in the entire 45-minute flight, Paul grabbed the controls to help stabilize the plane and we safely landed on the runway. Kylie taxied over to where about a half dozen other similar sized planes were parked, and we got off the plane, glad to feel our feet on the ground again.
Kylie led us on a short walk to an area where we could use the bathroom and take some pictures of the gorgeous views. During the course of our conversation, I asked her why Paul was along for the flight, pretty sure I knew the answer. She answered that she was being trained to make the flight from Wanaka to Milford Sound, and wasn’t certified to fly that route solo just yet, despite being a licensed pilot for about seven years. I had noticed on the way to Milford Sound that Paul was talking to her, communicating through the headsets where only the two of them could hear their conversation. He would make gestures and point in different directions, probably talking about wind currents, or where the search crews usually found the tourists bodies. Knowing that Paul, with his three decades of flying experience, was her co-pilot, made me feel confident that Kylie could navigate the increasingly gusty conditions that we were experiencing in Milford Sound as we prepared to fly back to Wanaka.
As we taxied out to the runway, we could hear Kylie communicating with the tower. She asked about recent flights over the eastern passes of the mountains and was informed that conditions had been pretty stable for the last hour or so. With that, she guided the Cessna first to the west toward the Tasman Sea, then about a third of the way down the sound, banked the plane back to the east, over the mountains toward Wanaka. For me, it was a much more relaxed flight, with good visibility and fewer bumps. We flew past Mt. Aspiring, which Paul said was used in the opening scene of the second Lord of the Rings movies.
Some glaciers glided by and valleys spread out beneath us. Kylie pointed out a large house and ranch that had been purchased by Shania Twain and her husband Mutt Lange before they split up. Apparently she never lived there but he still owned the impressive-looking piece of property. Before long, we could see Lake Wanaka and the eponymous town in sight and we got ready to land.
As we did, skydivers appeared just to the left of the runway, landing just a few feet to the left of the airstrip. Even Paul thought that was a little close for comfort, but fortunately for everyone involved, they were tandem jumping and their experienced divers hit the bullseye, safely out of our range as the still-attached wheels of our Cessna smoothly made contact with the airstrip pavement.
We shared some laughs and goodbyes with Paul and Kylie and I was happy to be back behind the controls of the Nissan Bluebird. Annie and I and the kids have been using a word on the trip that Ben coined early on. Magicality can be applied in a variety of ways. It was used a lot in Auckland to describe the electronic key for our apartment. It’s been uttered after we get the last parking spot on a busy street, or the last outdoor table at a waterfront café. And it certainly describes the feeling we had as we celebrated the 12th birthdays of Marley and Ben in New Zealand on what continues to be an amazing journey as a family.