Flying from North Shore to Wanaka: Making a Long-Range VFR Cross-Country Trip

Lessons learnt on an 800-mile adventure.

On 27 March 2018, my partner and I hopped in a light aircraft and began the 800-nauticalmile
journey from New Zealand’s largest city Auckland to the South Island mountain town
of Wanaka, where we were set to display our TL-3000 Sirius microlight-class aircraft at the
popular Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow. What follows is a quick rundown of the planning
process for a long-distance VFR flight and the events of our actual trip — including
charting our path, adjusting to changing conditions, and setting and adhering to personal
minimums.

Planning

Planning is the most essential part of any cross-country flight. For our trip to Wanaka, I
started by pinpointing where we were trying to get to and by when and simply worked back
from there.

Because the weather doesn’t always cooperate, the ‘by when’ was the trickiest aspect to
navigate (as it always is in the VFR world).

We needed to be in Wanaka by 4:00pm on Thursday 29 March. Our flight plan showed
around seven hours flying via our intended route — but there was a large front moving up
the country that wasn’t expected to clear Auckland before Wednesday afternoon, so we
packed up early and headed off Tuesday morning.

 

Our initial track had us flying from North Shore down the west coast of the North Island to
Whanganui (just over 200nm and two hours). It was a beautiful, cloudless morning when
we left Auckland, but low patchy cloud started to appear underneath as we were cruising
south at 3500’ over Raglan. With 3/8 coverage and it sitting around ground level, we opted
to stay above it.

Another 10 minutes south, 3/8 became 5/8. When 5/8 became 7/8, I decided to try to go
around. From the weather briefing before the flight, I knew New Plymouth was clear but
had some low-level cloud hanging around the coast of Mt Taranaki — so we chose a path
toward the Stratford gap, hoping to shoot between the cloud we’d turned away from and
the cloud we’d turned partly toward.

Personal minimums

Before taking off (and especially on a VFR flight where you don’t plan to immediately
return to where you’ve taken off from), it pays to have a set of ‘personal minimums’ you
assign to different situations. These can be anything from weather or aircraft performance
to fatigue or anxiety. Put simply, any given personal minimum would make you think twice
if confronted with it in-flight.

Visualise what those minimums look like, and plan what you’ll do if or when they happen.
Doing this on the ground keeps you one step ahead of any problems you might come
across in the air.

As we tracked toward Stratford from Taumarunui under that thin layer of cloud, we were
comfortably clear of terrain by 1500’ or so. But as we pressed on, the cloud got lower while
the terrain got higher. By the time we passed the small town of Purangi, we were down to
1500’ with the terrain high points were around 500’ — but the cloud was still descending.

Lessons learnt on an 800-mile adventure.

At Toko, I was changing heading to fly over the valley low points to keep my minimum
allowed clearance of both terrain and cloud. At this point, I knew we weren’t far from
getting through, and I thought I could see the coast at Hawera. Then in my mind, I
stopped.

In accident investigations, we read time and time again about the ‘Swiss cheese model.’ I’d
already passed through at least the first layer in that valley over Toko — and while I
thought I could see clear skies on the far side, the cloud over the next few sets of hills in
front wouldn’t have let me fly over the terrain at more than 500’. With one of my personal
minimums now staring me in the face, I made the tough call to turn back.

On the way in, I’d kept an exit route clear behind and slightly to the north back toward New
Plymouth. Diverting was difficult for me because it felt partly like defeat — like I’d been
beaten by the weather I should’ve been able to go around. But I knew it was both the right
call and the only call.

Recalibrating

Aviation boasts about a ‘safety first’ culture, but the true test is what happens after you
make a safety call (like diverting from your intended location). Once we’d landed and were
sitting in Jim Hickey’s fantastic Airspresso café drinking a coffee, I checked in with the
flight followers watching on our Spidertracks page and received nothing but support from
them.

An hour and a half (and a flat white and raspberry chocolate slice) later, I was at the
Precision Helicopter hangar having a chat when one of their pilots in Stratford called up
and confirmed the weather had cleared and would allow us to make a second attempt.
We left New Plymouth with full fuel tanks — eliminating the need to stop in Whanganui —
and with Omaka as our destination for the night. Because I hadn’t wanted to add anything
else to the dangerous ‘I must get to my destination’ thought process, we didn’t have any
accommodation firmed up for the evening. Instead, we’d singled out a couple of Airbnbs
close to the airfield and communicated with them to pencil in a booking in case we made it.
Once we cleared Stratford, the cloud literally disappeared in front of us, and we were back
to 3500’ cruising south. On the way down through M306 Raumai and M312 along the
Manawatu coast, we were dialed into OH Approach as the winds favoured a bit of height
(28kt tailwind giving us 138kts ground speed at 3500’).

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We went overhead Paraparaumu, lining up for a Cook Strait crossing from Ohau Point to
Tory NDB, but the cloud was once again coming down on us. This time, off the coast and
with our memories still fresh from Toko, we cautiously descended to 600’ to determine
whether or not we’d go forward. We could easily see the sun bright on the cliffs ahead, so
we continued on and out into the clear on the other side.

The Strait crossing was fairly uneventful, but as we got closer to Omaka the wind turned
westerly and began to spill over Arapawa Island, giving us a bit of a wild ride. With 30-
degree alternating angles of bank left and right, we requested to descend from WN tower
and were cleared to try to get out of the chop.

We made it into Omaka just fine and were greeted by the ever-welcoming Marlborough
Aeroclub, with Raylene even giving us a ride into town (thanks!).

Enjoying the adventure

On Wednesday morning, we got to the aircraft early behind a passing front and gassed up
to head south. The weather the next day around that part of the South Island was
expected to be a bit ratty — so with the prospect of getting into Wanaka a day early and
doing some wine tasting instead, we headed off.

Our track took us down the coast past Kaikoura. Since we had a couple of hours extra gas
onboard, we called a local whale-watching aircraft that was heading out and asked if we
could tail them. After a couple of attempts (and keeping well clear above them), we
eventually spotted an enormous blue whale hanging out on the surface.

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Once we’d had our fill of whale-watching, we headed for my original planned Alps crossing
at Burkes Pass, but with cloud base somewhere around 30,000’, we turned inland at Lake
Coleridge and headed toward Mt Cook. The Alps were such an incredible flying
environment — and on that calm day, they provided some of the most amazing scenic
flying I’ve ever had the privilege to enjoy.

We tracked past Mt Hutt and over Mesopotamia heading for the North Branch Godley VFR
reporting point. We hadn’t planned on heading into the Alps here, so I had to quickly flick
through the AIP ENR 1.16 and bone up on the procedures in the CFZ. It was busy
airspace, with all the tour operators around Mt Cook proper — so we decided to give them
some space and hang out one valley over around the Murchison Glacier in the Liebig
Range.

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After a lap in the valley here at 9500’, we were down to our last hour and a half of gas
onboard. We headed down Lake Pukaki and over Twizel for the gliding Mecca of
Omarama. The long grass strip, gas at the field, and the great café the Wrinkly Ram all
within walking distance were exactly what we needed after the nearly four-hour leg down
that day.

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After a quick lunch stop, it was back in the air for the last 40-minute hop through the Lindis
Pass to Wanaka. I was reading up on the AIP supplement for Warbirds a few days out, but
with an effective date of the day after, we were back to the standard approach procedure
for the airport by keeping to the north side of the field.

I’d imagine the Lindis Pass is well-known to most South Island aviators. It’s a great and
mostly reliable passage through the Mackenzie Country into South Otago, but it’s been
known to claim a few aircraft. I always like an excuse to practice things like flying through
passes (something us North Island pilots don’t always get to do) in good weather so that if
I ever need to give it a go in a less desirable situation, I’ll be somewhat better prepared.
Below the tops of the hills in the Lindis is a wide, shallowly climbing pass that follows the
road. There aren’t really any surprises on the way through — and with one little right-hand
turn at the narrowest point of the pass itself, you’re back down the other side into a wide
valley, running all the way past Tarras and into Wanaka.

Reflecting

All in all, it was an incredible trip involving some of the best flying of my life (and certainly
the best scenery). A couple of days after I arrived, I had time to reflect on the journey and
felt proud of my decision to divert to New Plymouth. There was no negative effect at all to
the trip — and with a $5 landing fee from memory, it was probably cheaper than
Whanganui anyway!

Before we left, I’d gone through the planned route on the VPC 1:1000000 chart with my
passenger so we both had a good idea of what to expect. I’d also used AvPlan EFB to plan
the flight and to export the aerodrome plates so we had the ones we needed stapled and
ready to go.

Operating AvPlan on an iPad while in the air made it so much easier to deal with changing
routes and pulling up new plates — including the approach procedure for New Plymouth
(special shout-out to the controller, who was incredibly helpful getting us in!) — but my
passenger did have the 1:250000 charts for each leg as a backup just in case.
We pulled weather reports from a number of sources to get the clearest possible picture.
Metvuw is a great tool for planning a few days out and seeing what’s coming. Another
excellent asset is Windy (you can visit the site or download the app), which allows you to
view a simple graphic to see both how fast things are moving and roughly when they’re
moving through. Then, the reliable Met briefing from IFIS and webcams at some of the
airports gave us an idea of the exact conditions at each of the places we were heading.
The trip south ended up totaling 8.7 hours, and we covered just over 800 nautical miles in
two days.

Long-distance cross-countries under VFR shouldn’t be seen as something the average
pilot can’t do. You might have to put a bit of work into it, but with the right planning and
preparation, anyone can undertake a similar journey. We live in one of the most beautiful
countries in the world — and for the most part, we’re able to fly anywhere in it. It’d be a
shame not to take advantage of such a unique opportunity.

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What are the essentials to remember when you are flying cross-country? Our checklist takes you through the considerations you need when making such a trip.

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