Airliner returns to Fiordland
Monument Hill is as high above Lake Manapouri as the water beside it is deep.
Love at First Flight” is the motto Airscapade Affairs uses to lure passengers aboard the pristine 1943 de Havilland 89B Dominie now flying from a base at Manapouri airfield, Te Anau.
The DH89B, ZK-AKY, belongs to the Croydon Aviation Heritage Trust, and over the last seven decades has seen operational life with a variety of organisations including the RNZAF, Ritchie Air Services, Southern Scenic Air Services and New Zealand National Airways Corporation, the colours of which it currently wears. ZK-AKY first operated from Te Anau on a regular basis from 1964 when Ian Ritchie bought it on its retirement from NZNAC scheduled operations, and it can lay claim to having the longest Fiordland service of any aeroplane.
Her new guardians now utilise the eight-passenger biplane on scenic aerial tours of Fiordland National Park over the summer months, offering tourists unobstructed airborne views of a variety of majestic alpine landscapes found along a 30min flight path from NZMO.
Adam Butcher is the man behind the yoke — chief pilot and operations manager for the Croydon Aircraft Company. Since going solo at age 16, and having dabbled at everything from glider winching to hot air ballooning, he’s maintained a strong appreciation of vintage aviation and a passion for historic flying machines.
As a youngster, Adam’s aspiration of becoming an airshow display pilot gravitated him away from traditional fixed wing trainers, and a flick through the pages of his logbook reveals the likes of a Tiger Moth rating, time in a Beech 18 twin, a DH5 WWI fighter replica and many aerobatic hours in Nanchang CJ-6s and the Jag Air Pitts Special out of Queenstown.
The combination of Adam’s local area knowledge, experience of establishing a Part 135 operation and unmatched enthusiasm for classical aviation saw French-based Kiwi entrepreneur, Mark Oremland, select him to manage his Fiordland tourism venture in early 2013.
The original plan was to have Mark’s Douglas DC-3, entitled the Jean Batten Clipper, become a permanent resident of Manapouri, from where it could offer flightseeing excursions over the nearby fiords upon arrival in the South Island after its epic round-the-world flight from England in 2012.
However, the lengthy process and requisite finances to bring the machine up to Part 125 operational standards have seen the dream delayed for the time being. In the interim, the Dominie has been brought in on a three-year programme to pick up the slack and prove the concept, much to the delight of both pilot and more than 350 passengers who have taken to the air in her over the 2013–2014 season.
Adam’s goal was to maximise the 50hr AKY had available on her tech log before the next ARA during their establishing season. This was an ambitious task considering it had only flown a total of 50hr over the previous decade, but he has managed to clock up a solid 42hr of air time since November and is already itching to get flying again come September when the international tourism season picks up again after the winter months.
He says a typical sortie lasts 30min, taking punters north from the aerodrome along the Waiau River, past the Te Anau township lakefront. This first waterway doubled as the fictional River Anduin from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and is a popular point of interest for overseas tourists sitting in the back.
After an orbit around the town, a gradual climb is begun along the western side of Lake Te Anau and course is set towards the South Fiord arm, giving passengers views of the Hidden Lakes, Kepler Track and up over the Luxmore Range. Levelling off at around the 6000ft mark, depending on weight, is the standard procedure for Adam, never placing the airliner in a position where it cannot clear surrounding terrain or doesn’t have an alternative valley escape route.
The flight path continues high up among the granite slopes of Fiordland National Park, a world away from the lush forestry and fertile pasturelands near the airport. The south-facing mountainsides here are snow-covered year round and provide a stark contrast to the lower-level foothills seen by the passengers from the roadside on their drive into Te Anau.
Lake Victoria, up among the prominent outline of the Cathedral Peaks, is the next point of interest, drained by an impressive 1000ft waterfall which gets an overfly. Now on a gentle descent, the Dominie passes over Lake Manapouri’s North Arm and over Monument Hill at 1200ft AGL. Adam describes how the elevation of the sharply pointed landmark remarkably matches the depth of the lake floor beside it!
With every seat being a window seat, there are picture-taking opportunities galore, from wheels off to wheels on. Two of the windows even have the ability to slide completely open, should passengers wish to eliminate the
Perspex reflections in their point-and-shoot photographs or get creative with their capture angles. Cruising at a leisurely 110mph gives each passenger a good chance to absorb the views while enjoying the throbbing hum of the twin Gipsy Queen 208hp engines, singing away on each side.
When questioned about the suitability of operating a 71-year-old aeroplane in the deep south, Adam is quick to jump to the Dominie’s defence, explaining the timber-and-fabric airframe is given hangared refuge year round and the engines are run at sensible power settings. Drift-down altitudes on a single engine are always calculated with flight levels planned accordingly, and bar the replacement of a single exhaust manifold gasket, AKY has been the perfect alternative platform for the original flight concept thus far.
The Dominie also provided a full commercial service into Wanaka for the recent airshow without exemptions or concessions. Adam says, “It was very cool to reflect on the fact that we celebrate ageing aircraft, and yet the Dominie at 71 years old is still providing a full commercial service, flying people to the show, keeping up with current requirements.”
In fact, for an airliner designed in the 1930s that burns only 80lt of fuel an hour and has 1 tonne of useable payload, it rivals many modern equivalent sized twins for economy, in his eyes. The large light-filled single-place cockpit, harmonised handling characteristics and stream of inquisitive conversations from his passengers makes the DH89 a delight for Adam to fly.
The locals are happy to share their skies with the vintage aeroplane too, with Airscapade conducting suitability enquiries with the established Te Anau aviation operators before commencing business. A general consensus to promote Te Anau as a unique destination was shared by all, adding the Dominie attraction to an increasing list of special activities the region has to offer and growing its appeal from just a stop-by town on the way to Milford Sound to a vacation destination in its own right.
In the days before helicopters took over, DH89s were a common sight in the area as Ian Ritchie, based at Te Anau’s original aerodrome now covered by the expanding town, used them for tourist operations, particularly to Milford Sound. The Dominie’s speed, load-carrying capabilities and handling qualities proved well suited for dropping supplies to remote Fiordland huts.
Over the next two seasons the Airscapade team will work through its three-year plan, making the operation more efficient and seeing if it can be taken any further. In effect, Adam is laying the groundwork to bring the larger radial-powered airliner, the original plan, back to the skies, through a creative approach to ensure the sustainability of all future initiatives.
There are talks of nationwide promotional and tourism tours with the Jean Batten Clipper alongside the Air Chathams DC-3, to spread awareness and drum up additional support for the cause from like-minded aviation enthusiasts and those passionate about experiencing the elegance and adventure of a golden era of travel.
Smaller boutique operators such as Airscapade Affairs are at a real advantage when it comes to leaving a long-lasting personal impression with those they take flying. Aside from the opportunity for members of the public and tourists alike to fly in a machine from a bygone era, the appeal of the Dominie lies in the fact that it is based off the beaten track and that it’s something that can be experienced at only one place at one time. The small passenger cabin allows each customer to be given plentiful and personal attention from the crew, be able to interact and feel included in the operation.
It takes a dedicated and enthusiastic personality type to be able to make this happen, yet between Mark and Adam it seems that the Airscapade Affair has taken off in Te Anau.
It’s great to see these older aircraft types being preserved and shared with the community, and we look forward to hearing more from the duo as the weather warms up again after the winter.
-Report by Andrew Underwood, photography by truetravel and John King.
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