What was your answer when someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Nurse? Vet? Firefighter?
How about pilot?
I never really wanted to be a pilot or learn to fly. I just never understood the joy of flying. I’ve always loved traveling but the actual transfer from one place to another via plane was simply a necessary evil. An uncomfortable and boring means to a worthy goal.
When our Stray bus stopped at the airport in Wanaka and I was offered the option to take my very first taster lesson in flying a plane, though, I just had to say yes. And it was one of the most amazing experiences I had during my entire 5 weeks in New Zealand.
So, join me on my unforgettable time above the clouds and see how you can also become one of those annoying (but totally awesome…) people that can’t shut up about how “I actually flew a plane! By. My. Self!”
Learn to fly in Wanaka
There are actually two companies that will take you on trial flights over beautiful Lake Wanaka. There’s U-Fly and Learn to Fly Wanaka. While both have raving reviews on tripadvisor and you really can’t go wrong with either, I’d definitely recommend Learn to Fly for two very important reasons.
- It’s cheaper: For a 20 minute flight lesson you only pay $149 NZD instead of $199 NZD.
- You can bring your own personal photographer for free: Do you think anyone is going to believe that you flew a plane without visual proof? That’s why Learn to Fly Wanaka let’s you take a friend with you on board for absolutely no additional cost. Your friend will sit comfortably in the back row with the perfect view to capture your heroism in action. So you can focus all your attention on
not crashing the planesoaring through the sky like an eagle!
A bite, a piece or the entire cake?
Depending on your budget, you can choose one of three options.
- The amuse-bouche: For just $149 NZD you can fly for 20 minutes. With the instructions on the ground, the entire experience will last about 45 minutes. You will learn how to take off, land and make a few turns in the air.
- The dinner: If you want to have a bit more time in the air but don’t want to completely blow your budget, you can opt for the 30-minute flight for $199 NZD.
- The whole shebang: Why not include a bit of sight-seeing in your flying lesson? For $349, you can spend an entire hour in the air! You will not just see gorgeous Lake Wanaka but fly all the way to Mt. Aspiring and marvel at the glaciers way down below.
Walking to the plane felt strangely familiar. I was as nervous as I was right before my first driving lesson. Except this time, I was supposed to make something fly and, even worse, bring it safely back to the ground. As they say, coming down isn’t the problem, the “how” is the issue.
The teacher tried to calm my nerves by making some small talk. He asked my friend jokingly, whether we’ve already known each other for a long time or why on earth he trusted me with his life. Well, we’ve only known each other for a couple of weeks and you’re not helping, mate, because now my friend is probably seriously regretting agreeing to a “free flight over Wanaka”…
First, my friend climbed into the plane. One foot on the step, one on the wing and he disappeared in the back row of the plane.
Now, it was my turn. One foot on the step, one on the wing and I slid along the seat to the left side of the plane. In front of me, I could see all of these dials, switches and buttons. Some knobs seemed to be for pulling, others for pushing, others for twisting. Flying appeared to be a high-tech version of the Bop-It game… At least the pedals on the floor and the steering wheel felt somewhat familiar.
After the teacher made himself comfortable beside me, he started to explain what every knob and dial was for. There you can see the elevation, this one’s for speed, over here you can see, whether the plane is level or not and this button activates warp speed. There was no way I could remember all of this!
But the plane was ready and so I had to be too. It was time to buckle up and start the engine.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lift-off!
The plane slowly started rolling forwards. Using the pedals, we steered the plane towards the runway. When I say “we”, I mean mostly the teacher. I realized quickly, that I wasn’t really in control of the pedals, which gave me a sense of relief. Maybe he would do most of the flying as well?
At the beginning of the runway we waited for the plane in front of us to take off. Their take-off was really wobbly and all over the place! Scared witless again, I turned to my teacher. “We’re gonna take off in a straight line, alright?”, was all he had to say grinning from ear to ear. If you say so, Sir… If you say so…
“Look at this dial here! When the plane reaches this speed, you have to pull the control wheel towards you, ok?”
I pushed the speed stick forward and the plane started to accelerate. The dial kept going up and the end of the runway kept coming closer and closer. Glancing over to my right, I saw that the teacher wasn’t even properly holding his steering wheel!
Wait, so you actually want me to take off? This isn’t just some spiel, where you make me feel as if I’m actually in control but in reality you’re doing all the work? The end of the runway is getting closer, dude, and we’re still on the ground!
“Do I have to pull now?”, I tried to ask as calmly as I could muster. “Yes. Pull now.”
So, that’s what I did… I pulled… And immediately, I felt this tingly feeling in my stomach telling me that, yes indeed, we had lift-off!
I believe I can learn to fly
Once we reached our final height, I could finally relax a little. I didn’t kill anyone so far. I’d call that an achievement!
The teacher was as chilled as an ice-cube. He was telling me more about the plane, took selfies and was just happily chatting along. I was still too tense to let go of the control wheel (especially because he was clearly not holding on to his!) but it slowly started to sink in, where I was.
The view of Lake Wanaka and the mountains in front of us was breath-taking. The sun was glistening in the water and the fields were showing off every shade of green possible. I was just hoping that my photographer was doing a good job capturing this moment for me, although I knew, that this was a moment I would never forget.
A long way down
After a couple of minutes, we made a U-turn and started heading back to the airport.
Landing a plane seemed to be a lot more difficult than taking off. There were even more buttons to push and levers to pull. There was even a weird crank handle that I had to turn every couple of minutes.
We did another U-turn and there it was. In the distance, I could see the runway again. It seemed tiny! Way to narrow and short… Alright, I can do this! I brough us up here, I can bring us back down too!
Gently pushing the control wheel away from me, the plane started to descend. The teacher was definitely more involved this time, helping me to keep a straight line and time the landing.
The earth came closer and closer and everything grew bigger. There it was. Right in front of us. With a soft thump, the plane landed safely on the runway. The teacher told me to pull the brake and the plane slowed down to an easy rolling speed.
I let go off the control wheel, feeling that the teacher took over the pedals again steering the plane back to our starting point.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I felt my friend patting me on the back. I never asked whether it was a congratulatory pat or just a thankful pat for not killing him.
To pilot or not to pilot
So, did this change my attitude towards flying? Do I love flying now? Well, no. I still thinks that it’s a drag and I can’t wait for the invention of a teleportation system but I do understand why pilots love their job. Feeling this freedom, the rush and marveling at the beauty all around me from high up above was magnificent.
For lack of a better word, I felt pretty high the rest of the day. I couldn’t stop grinning as the endorphins continued to rush through my veins. With my certificate as proof of my first official flying lesson in my pocket, I continued my epic journey around New Zealand.
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So what about you? Are you ready to take off?