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NZ aviation experiences you need to try

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Alison Godfrey 31 August 2018

New Zealand’s diverse landscapes offer an ever-unfolding natural backdrop for flight-seeing and aerial adventures so it’s no wonder that aviation tourism is a popular activity all over the country.

The Yealands Classic Fighters Omaka air show (14–16 April) is a three-day extravaganza that stars more than 100 aircraft.Picture: Mark Greenmantle

New Zealand by air makes for spectacular sightseeing. Vast coastal expanses, high mountain peaks, deep fresh-water lakes, braided rivers, dramatic fiords and colourful volcanic landforms are some of the scenic highlights of the land - celebrated as the home of Middle-earth - that are best revealed from above.

Most regions have multiple aviation adventures and activities - from flight-seeing and helicopter landings on an active volcano or a grand tour of the highest peaks in the Southern Alps, to champagne picnics in wilderness locations, West Coast glaciers heli-hikes or heli-ski excursions into remote snowy expanses.

Many luxury lodges, wilderness retreats and city hotels have helipads offering easy access, transfers to and from, and the-skies-the-limit activity options - including weddings in majestic natural locations.

North Island aviation activities

White Island - an active marine volcano off the North Island’s Bay of Plenty coast - is a spectacular and unique landmark. Scenic flights over the island operate from Tauranga, Rotorua and Whakatane, along with helicopter tours that land on the island for a hiking option.

New Zealand’s famed central North Island volcanic plateau also sets the scene for flights over Lake Taupo, a cluster of volcanic peaks - Tarawera, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - and the treasured dual world heritage Tongariro National Park.

South Island aviation activities

The South Island, with its sweeping Southern Alps mountain chain, and the continuous parade of lakes and glaciers is an aerial feast.

Early morning balloon flights take in the vast expanse of the Canterbury Plains, Pacific seaboard and the snowy mountain peaks while The Grand Traverse is a dramatic scenic flight exploring the highest peaks on both sides of the island and over Mt Cook and Westland national parks.

Aviation pioneer Mount Cook Ski Planes has been landing fixed-wing planes on a glacier for more than 50 years - and it’s still the only opportunity in the world for tourists to make this kind of glacier landing.

In Westland National Park, helicopters take tourists on a spectacular ascent onto the twin West Coast glaciers - Franz Josef and Fox - with an ice landing and hike across the frozen landscape.

The ski fields of the Southern Alps are the launching pad for heli-ski excursions away from the crowds on resort slopes. Methven Heliski operates from a Canterbury high country sheep station, taking powder hounds into the mighty glaciated Arrowsmiths mountain range to make first tracks across the fresh powder.

Queenstown’s Over the Top luxury helicopter excursions reveal stunning hidden gems that set the scene for gourmet picnics, extreme golfing, exclusive wine and fly fishing experiences.

Fokker Triplane's form part of the exhibition at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, Marlborough. Picture: Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

Home of Middle-earth

Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film fans from around the world know New Zealand as the home of Middle-earth, and flying is the best way to see some of the top Lord of the Rings tourism destinations - guided by locals who helped find the locations and transport the stars during filming.

In the Nelson Tasman region, Reid Helicopters operates flights to stunning Lord of the Rings locations in the beautiful Abel Tasman and Nelson Lakes national parks.

From Queenstown, Glacier Southern Lakes, Trilogy Trail and Heli Works share insider stories on a string of Middle-earth locations throughout the Southern Lakes region.

In the pilot seat

New Zealand is an attractive destination for experienced pilots who want to take the controls while experiencing scenic highlights.

Flight charter companies and aero clubs throughout New Zealand rent planes for self-fly excursions or offer flying lessons.

Omarama, surrounded by the Southern Alps, is a renowned destination for gliding enthusiasts from around the world.

At Wanaka, U-Fly Wanaka offers budding aviators the opportunity to pilot a dual-control Light Sports aircraft while enjoying the stunning alpine and vineyard landscape below.

Balloons over Waikato is a colourful five-day event held each March in Hamilton. Picture: balloonsoverwaikato.co.nz

Aviation heritage

New Zealand’s national symbol might be the flightless kiwi bird but that has never held back the human Kiwi population whose love-affair with the skies and all things aerial - from planes, helicopters, gliders and hot air balloons, to airborne adventure sports like skydive and paragliding - goes back to the earliest days of flight.

New Zealanders embraced the aviation revolution as inventors, pilots and passengers. Some rose to fame - including solo pilot Jean Batten for her record-breaking journeys, early inventor-aviator Richard Pearse, and tourism pioneer Sir Henry (Harry) Wigley whose Kiwi ingenuity developed the world’s first retractable skis for planes.

At New Zealand's oldest aerodrome - Mandeville airfield near Croydon, in Southland - the Croydon Aircraft Museum has a collection of planes from the 1930s era including de Havilland aircraft. Visitors can take a nostalgic flight in a Tiger Moth or, for the daring, experience the adrenalin rush of an acrobatic joy ride. They can also watch activities in the workshop which is recognised as a world leader in aviation restoration and, once a year in February, the Mandeville Fly-In Weekend attracts incredible vintage aircraft from the 1920s and 1930s.

Aviation museums & collections

New Zealand’s aviation heritage and heroes are celebrated in a series of museums and collections throughout New Zealand. Notable world-class aviation collections are open to visitors in Auckland, Tauranga and Masterton (in the North Island), Marlborough and Wanaka (in the South Island). Many smaller collections are also open to the public:

Auckland: MOTAT Aviation Display Hall - one of the southern hemisphere’s most impressive aircraft collections.

Tauranga: Classic Flyers Aviation Museum - includes classic aircraft that regularly take to the skies and aviation memorabilia.

Masterton: The Vintage Aviator Fighter Collection - rare rotating collection of airworthy WWI and WWII fighter aircraft on display at Hood Aerodrome.

Marlborough: Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre - not just another museum, this is an inspiring multi-sensory experience featuring film-maker Sir Peter Jackson’s incredible collection of WWI and WWII aircraft displayed in out-of-this world movie sets.

Christchurch: Air Force Museum - features several generations of classic aircraft, and entry is free.

Wanaka: Wanaka Airport - home of the biennial Warbirds over Wanaka airshow - draws together several aviation experiences. Warbirds & Wheels Museum is a collection of rare fighter aircraft and vintage vehicles that tells the stories of the New Zealand flying aces of WWI and WW2, and documents the life of local flying legend Sir Tim Wallis. The National Transport and Toy Museum is one of the world’s largest private collections and includes rare and unusual aircraft and vehicles. Classic Flights will take nostalgic punters up and away in a vintage Tiger Moth.

Wanaka New Zealand. Picture: Shutterstock

Aviation events

New Zealand hosts several high profile aviation airshows and events:

Wings over Wairarapa - three-day biennial event (February)

Mandeville Vintage Aircraft Fly-in - two-day event (March)

Classic Fighters at Omaka - three-day biennial event (April)

Balloons over Waikato - five-day event (March)

Wairarapa Balloon Festival - held annually (April)

Warbirds over Wanaka - three-day biennial event (April)

More information

Aero Clubs: www.flyingnz.co.nz

Air licensing requirements: www.caa.govt.nz

New Zealand Tours and travel