Attendees of the Northern Aviators Club annual Christmas event landed a special surprise last month with a visit from UK Royal Air Force (RAF) Wing Commander Chris Pote.
Chris had flown a microlight for 186 hours from England, with 23 stops, to reach New Zealand as part of the RAF 100-year anniversary.
He and officer cadet Abby McGill touched down at Kaipara Flats Airfield from North Shore Aero Club on December 8.
Chris spoke about his trip and described some of the hairy and amusing moments he encountered.
These included pulling up alongside Boeing 777 planes at the airport and landing at Bangkok in pitch black after being delayed by strong headwinds.
He flew a Eurofox, weighing in at just 300kg, that had an additional two fuel tanks, giving it a range of over 2000km. Four co-pilots, including Abby, joined him for various parts of the trip.
As Chris went to leave, he got back out of the plane and drew laughter from club members with the memorable line, “You would think after 20,000 miles I would remember to get the keys out of my pocket before I got in the plane.”
Around 55 people and 18 aircraft were at the Christmas event, which raised $230 for Harbour Hospice.
Northern Aviators Club secretary Keith Morris says the day was a huge success and that the special visit from Chris was well received by members of the club.
Reporter and aviation nut Ben Donaldson loved hearing all about Chris Pote’s adventures on his RAF centenary flight to Kaipara Flats Airfield, but he really couldn’t imagine what flying in such a small plane might feel like. Until he mentioned that fact to Northern Aviators Club member Brian Millet …
It’s Parakai Airfield owner Harvey Lockie who kindly offers to take a rather excited me up in his microlight.
I haven’t really had time to decide whether I’m nervous or not about taking off in this tiny two-seater with a propeller and a stranger, but I reckon the fact that he’s been flying for 30 years and still lives to tell the tale is a good start.
He gives me further confidence by taking me through the pre-flight inspection. This stuff may seem mundane, but it’s pretty darn important before you chuck yourself into the air.
We run our hands along the flaps and the propeller to make sure they haven’t sustained any damage while on the ground. Next up is getting in, which is no easier than throwing yourself onto a horse. I use the step to avoid damaging the wing flaps and carefully get myself over the seat before dropping down into it. It’s a really snug fit, with only one place for your legs to go. If you’ve ever been tucked up in a sports coupe, then you’ll know what I’m talking about; real fighter pilot stuff.
Harvey gets in and shows me how to lock up the cockpit. It’s a clear dome that closes just over your head, hinged at the front like the bonnet on an Aston Martin.
He hands me a headset, an indication that things are going to get noisy, and we taxi to the start of the runway, a grass strip about 800 metres long. I’ve done this on the smooth tarmac at Auckland plenty of times, but it’s a whole different feeling, bobbing up and down over every inconsistency in
the turf here.
As we taxi, he runs me through what all the controls mean and checks the systems. He points out one large red stalk with a handle and says, “If I die while we’re up there, pull that and a parachute will eject to land the plane safely.” Surprisingly, this actually makes me feel safe; I guess the alternative is free-falling.
Finally, we’re facing the runway. The whole green strip wide open in front of us. I can imagine how pilots must feel before take-off now – as though you’re about to take on a real challenge.
Take-off is always my favourite part of any flight. Nothing beats being forced back in your seat by something that has enough power to actually get you off the ground and keep you that way. However, I can now say that it’s a whole new feeling in a microlight. At 1300cc, its engine is half the size of the one in my car.
I have memories of Boeing 747s that feel like a mountain being pushed by fast elephants.
This is more like a paper plane being pulled by a fly. But it’s amazing how easily it lifts off from the ground, weighing in at just 350kg itself and only about 500kg with us on board. We’re swiftly up and away and the real world is fast turning into a miniature set.
Suddenly, we start banking and I have a new favourite experience in a plane. I must say there is nothing quite like being pressed up against a clear cockpit, feeling like you’re floating across the country. Just imagine lying down on the glass floor panels in the Sky Tower, only a few thousand feet up in the sky.
We head out over the Warkworth Satellite Station and then out towards the coast of Snells Beach. You get a proper understanding from this height of where everything sits and, at 180km/h, it all seems so close together.
We communicate our location to other small aircraft every five minutes or so; there is no need to talk with air traffic control below 10,000 feet.
I can’t take the grin off my face for the whole flight and I can tell Harvey was bitten by the microlight bug many years ago from his expressions, too.
We circle my house a couple of times and then head back towards the airfield, but there is still one last thrill to go, and that’s landing. Harvey lines up with the runway and we start our descent. It’s been a blowy flight and he mentions that if we can’t touch down properly, he will put the power back on and circle around for another attempt. He’s perfectly in tune with the process, though, and it’s like landing on Aladdin’s magic carpet for us this time.
We taxi to a stop and I express my thanks to Harvey. What a terrific surprise it was, and I would highly recommend Parakai or Kaipara Flats for anyone wanting a similar experience.
My only question afterwards was, “How on earth did Chris land one of those in the black of night?!”