Offroading, with wings
The aero club has invested in two Cessna 172s, tailwheel and tricycle, to suit the experience level of its pupils, but their results in spot landing competitions continue to surprise the uninitiated.
The Marlborough Aero Club is a well-founded, long-standing establishment, nestled between the picturesque sauvignon blanc vineyards at Omaka aerodrome. The club itself has been in operation since the 1920s, teaching the conventional private and commercial pilot syllabuses to multitudes of local aviators over the decades.
Eighteen months ago, however, the club began offering a new course to its members, the likes of which are a first in New Zealand.
Committee meetings had noted a progressive decline in flight hours, and thinking caps were donned to counter a problem it seemed that many other aero clubs around the country were also facing. After some deliberation it was unanimously decided that the apparent lack of fun available once a student pilot transitioned to his or her qualified status had started to make the whole general aviation scene seem somewhat boring.
You’d definitely describe the guys who fly here are as outdoorsy — not the sort you’d catch sipping on lattes or following their plus ones around the big city malls on the weekends. No, these guys are hunters, farmers and explorers, often flying off to one of the many private strips in the region to visit unique locations accessible only from the air.
It seemed a logical step to combine what they all enjoy doing in their spare time with what they do for a living, to bring the appeal of this niche flying to the wider public — and thus the idea for a Strip Flying Course was born.
The local instructors had also been taking notice of student pilots from other establishments transiting Omaka on long-distance north-south cross-countries. Their surprise at how much runway the visitors tended to chew up, often near the entire 1000m available, led to an amendment to their own teaching style, focusing first and foremost on accurate precision landing techniques.
This developed into a two-stage structured programme, the Basic and the Advanced Strip Flying Courses. Each consists of five hours’ dual instruction, visiting a selection of the 20-plus private off-airfield sites in the surrounding valley systems.
With the landing area dimensions being significantly shorter and thinner than those in the regular training environment, the fun comes in the form of overcoming the preconceived notion of danger and honing your flying skills to confidently place your aircraft exactly where you want it to land, rather than the aeroplane landing where it wants to instead!
A combination of sloping strips, curved strips, one-way strips (with the requirement for tailwind approaches or takeoffs), and even beaches feature on the aero club’s list of approved landing sites, graded 1 through to 4 in terms of difficulty. The basic course will see you visiting and performing circuits at both grade 1 and 2 strips, and then if you wish to progress, grade 3 and 4 sites are exclusively available for those on the advanced course.
The club realised its fleet of aeroplanes needed to be suitable for this task and made the decision to sell two of its low-wing Piper Cherokees in favour of more practical machines. The requirements drafted by the committee included STOL capabilities, side-by-side seating, manual flaps and preferably one tailwheel and one tricycle undercarriage type to cater for pilots more comfortable with a nosewheel.
Cessna 172s ZK-OMK and ZK-OMR were found for sale simultaneously in the USA fitting all these prerequisites, and were brought on line in Marlborough at the beginning of 2013.
Each of the courses is usually run over a period of two consecutive days, weather conditions permitting. The high levels of concentration required for low and slow flight, in close proximity to terrain and far away from the safety of most comfort zones, is more mentally taxing than most potential candidates might first expect.
I was generously invited down to the South Island, along with Bernice Hintz up from Canterbury, last month on behalf of Aviation News to partake in a sampling of the strip flying tuition. Due to my own time constraints I was able to be in Blenheim for only one day, so we were taken through an abbreviated version of the complete strip flying package now being offered to nationwide PPL holders.
As an Ardmore student, my exposure to this sort of flying was at a bare minimum. Throughout my CPL training, the school I was a part of sent students on pre-assigned cross-country routes mainly to sealed runways around the upper North Island. Other than this, the one private strip I’d operated from while parachute dropping was a comfortable 700m long, flat and open.
To say I was wide-eyed on the morning we met up would be a serious understatement. A magnitude 4.0 earthquake and the METAR showing temperatures in the negatives were all foreign to me as an Auckland boy. Thankfully, light and variable winds and high cloud were perfect for some ab-initio flying into the bush, and after an informal briefing out on the frosty airfield, I was belted up and ready to go in 180hp Oscar Mike Romeo with CFI Sharn Davies.
First on the agenda were low-level circuits on Omaka’s runway 30. A grid of lines had been mown across the grass in 10m increments from the runway end markers, and the aim of the first lesson was to be able to fly a stabilised approach and touch down ±25m from the main wooden boards.
Short takeoffs with the manual flap lever were also explained, setting 10deg as per standard short field procedure but pumping down to 20deg as we felt the weight from the nose begin to ease, giving the wing a burst of extra lift and encouraging a hop into the air. The nose is then lowered again to build up airspeed and flap reduced to 10deg, followed by a standard climb away in the white arc.
Sharn then talked through the concept of keeping the aircraft pitch level from the downwind leg all the way to the flare, with a reduction of power and hefty back trim on base, followed by checking our wingtips were flat with the horizon as we descended towards the threshold. Flaps could be dropped all the way to 40deg, adjusting the throttle in short bursts as necessary to combat localised areas of sink on final approach.
Compared to the standard lowering of the nose landing technique that I’d been taught previously, the higher nose attitude and lower airspeed made for a comfortable and precise landing, although the reduced airflow over the elevator required a significantly harder pull back on the yoke to set the mains down on the grass.
We performed three or so circuits in this manner on the main runway before switching to a smaller strip mown into the grass on the right-hand side of the official 30 vector, approximately 12m wide by 300m long. The same technique was practised again here, with the grid lines extending parallel to the main runway’s marker boards for the instructor to mark student performance.
What at first seemed like a fairly tricky accomplishment was achieved with ease thanks to Sharn’s guidance, and after a short coffee break he was happy enough to take me out over the hills into some genuine private strips to see if I could repeat the effort.
First on the agenda was the Aotea strip (grade 2), owned by Marcus van Asch deep in the Awatere Valley southwest of Omaka. While winds were light and variable on the ground in the wide open Wairau Valley where Woodbourne’s ATIS was recorded, a stiff 20kt southerly at 2000ft made for a bumpy transit over the Taylor Pass and created a funnelling effect through the next valley’s interior.
We dropped down to 1500ft, 500ft above the airstrip elevation, and slowed down with 20deg flaps. Sharn recommended this configuration for the pilot to be able to feel what the local air mass is doing, with lift, sink and turbulence far more identifiable at a slower pace. We made a low-level fly-by over the strip, noting surrounding tree and power line obstructions and surface conditions, at the same time scaring off a flock of paradise ducks camping on the centreline.
Several landings were performed with Sharn talking me through each step, familiar with the lift and sink patterns that accompanied the particular wind direction, and emphasising that the power adjustments didn’t need to “sound pretty” in order for me to maintain the stable approach. On the 500m long strip itself there couldn’t have been more than 8kt of wind at ground level, but its gradient increased significantly within the immediate 150ft above, and even though dual directional takeoffs were achievable on calmer days, we elected to backtrack and take off slightly uphill after each touchdown.
Strip number two (also grade 2) belonged to Frank Prouting and sat up snug against the northern valley walls further to the northeast. The uphill gradient along with the unmistakable dogleg curve upped the bar for me, as did the curved final approach from the south. However, while being relatively bendy and slopey, the strip length was a good 800m and gave plenty of room to select the optimum touchdown point for the given conditions as we made a fly-by assessment.
Sharn demonstrated the first landing here, then taxied us up to the top end, shut the engine down and popped open the luggage locker. Inside were camping chairs, a bag of food and even a hot Thermos of coffee. Lunch was duly enjoyed on the sheltered side of the Cessna, drinking in the mountainous scenery and admiring the isolated serenity a world away from my suburban lifestyle.
The experience that the Marlborough Aero Club offers is clearly more than just hands-on flying skills — it’s an adventure in itself. It was one of those cliché “not a bad day in the office eh Sharn?” moments that the CFI couldn’t deny, and I was busy snapping photos before we got back into the Cessna for round three.
While the steep hillsides along the right-hand edge of the strip shielded the direction of the wind, I was quick to figure that the wind flow curled its way around the valley, altering its direction according to the orientation of the valley walls. A downwind takeoff would have seen our aircraft pushed dangerously close to the hillsides, so a decision to take off uphill again, with an early left turn to escape the sink, was made instead.
This was good fun, and we continued on a further two circuits of the strip, at low level with 20 flap hanging out to simulate deteriorating weather conditions and really sharpening my need for accuracy.
Upon completion, we set course for Omaka and flew the reverse of the Taylor Pass track northbound. Haze and various vertical smoke columns scattered around the floor of the Wairau Valley indicated a definite sheltering from the southerly wind, with NZWB still reporting light and variable on the ground, now halfway into the afternoon.
Seeing an opportunity, Sharn took control and demonstrated a grade 4 strip landing, a 200m steep uphill one-wayer used by Duncan Grigg for agricultural operations. To see a C172 (with three on board) stop and take off in such a short space was unexpected and impressive, but it just goes to show what can be achieved with a bit of practice!
I swapped places with my back seat passenger Bernice after the full stop on the ridge top and got to observe Sharn tutoring her as we visited a grade 3 strip known locally as Omaka Springs, made manageable without any significant breeze. Sharn mentioned that every strip flight is different, and he’s always learning as he goes, as well as clearly enjoying himself — which makes all the difference to the student in the left seat.
Finally, on return to Omaka, Sharn instructed Bernice to set herself up deliberately high on final approach and gave us some new tips on how to get back down to profile. Sideslipping was the obvious first guess, but with 40deg of flap out, slipping the Cessna blankets airflow over elevator and isn’t recommended. Instead, pushing the rudder pedals left and right repeatedly acted like a cone shape of drag on the tail and increased our rate of descent to 800fpm at idle power.
On the second attempt, he then explained that if we feared a long float, a quick but gentle reduction of flap back to neutral setting, combined with easing the yoke back in the flare, would set the aircraft firmly onto the ground as lift dissipated. Two techniques that I’d not heard of previously but am glad to have learned.
Back at the hangar we ran into club president Craig Anderson, a pioneer of this course and a bush flying fanatic himself. He runs $1 reserve strip flying courses on TradeMe on behalf of the Marlborough Aero Club, and made sure that we would keep our eyes on the website in the future to see the offers they periodically run.
Craig also invited us back in the summer for the Healthy Bastards Bush Flying Championships at the airfield, with 2015’s date now set for 31 January. The skills learned from the course are demonstrated by many others at the competition, with categories for short field takeoffs and landings as well as precision landings, and all are invited to participate with an entry fee of $50 and jackpot of $500 up for grabs.
Many thanks to everyone at the Marlborough Aero Club who made the flying in July available for the Aviation News team. I had a brilliant time and look forward to returning to the region to further develop what I’ve begun to learn. My only regret is that it was all over too quickly for me!
- Report by Andrew Underwood, photographs by Rob Duff.
» Summer success at the Walsh
» The luxury of living in the Ivory Tower
» Comper moves swiftly
» UAV usefulness increasing
» Woodville’s even dozen
» 60th birthday party for ZK-BNL
» New airline MRO facility
» Hands across the Southern Alps
» Praise earned in tough place