Kiwi invention celebrates 50
Standing near the top of the world, encircled by snow, ice
and colossal rock, a tourist husband and wife burst into tears.
They assure the pilot of the Mount Cook ski plane sitting on the
glacier behind them that they are crying in happiness. It is
the first time in their lives, they say, that they have
experienced the magnificence of total silence.
Standing on Tasman Glacier and staring at the enormity and
serenity of Aoraki, Mt Cook ó New Zealandís tallest peak ó is an
Itís not just the sights ó itís the sound. The Pilatus Porter
plane which carried you there shuts down its engine and the
noise ó or complete absence of it - is deafening. In winter and
spring, the soft snow absorbs all sound.
'We sometimes see people in tears,' says Mount Cook Ski Planes
co-owner Richard Royds. 'That total silence is very moving.'
It is an experience that is unique to this place. Mount Cook
Ski Planes, makes the
only fixed-wing glacier landing in the world that operates year
round. You can fly to glaciers in Alaska, but only in the
Mount Cook Ski Planes made aviation history in 1955 when Sir
Henry Wigley (better known as Harry) made the first snow landing
on the Tasman Glacier, the longest glacier in the Southern
Hemisphere. Sir Edmund Hillary, the legendary New Zealand
mountaineer, was one of the first passengers to land on the
glacier on that historic first day.
It took years of perseverance and famous Kiwi ingenuity by 'Sir
Harry' to create the first retractable skis for an aircraft. But
no one was surprised by his tenacity - the Wigley family were
innovators, entrepreneurs and pioneers of tourism in New
Zealand. His father, Rodolph, formed one of the first
commercial aviation companies in the country, helped introduce
skiing in the South Island, and drove the first motor vehicle to
Harry was a World War II fighter pilot, mountain climber,
national downhill skiing champion and, like his father, an
astute businessman. In less than a year after the retractable
ski prototype was tested, the Mount Cook Company ski plane
business was up and running, and quickly became a household
Richard Royds, now the companyís managing director alongside
veteran pilot Alex Miller, says the name 'ski plane' is often
misunderstood. 'Visitors are sometimes confused that itís just
for taking skiers up the mountains. Thatís only a very small
part of our business,' Royds says.
'Itís really about taking scenic flights through the spectacular
valleys, landing on a glacier, shutting down the engine and the
unique experience of being high in the Alps in silence. You
could take a helicopter, but they donít shut down their
Over the last 50 years, very little has changed in the scenery
as the glaciers slowly tumble and grind their way down the
valleys. But the planes used to carry tourists to the glaciers
have changed significantly.
Sir Harry Wigleyís first ski plane was an Auster, a two-seater
fixed-wing light aircraft which served the company well but was
grossly underpowered for the job of taking off from the snow.
The business moved to Cessna 180s ó the early model of the
185s the company has now. For glacier landings, the airline
principally uses Pilatus Porters, purpose-built Swiss planes.
These turbine-powered STOL (short take off and landing) aircraft
are fitted with retractable skis.
The Porters seat up to nine passengers. On a good day in the
high season - November through to April - all nine seats will be
filled, on 10 flights a day.
The first flight leaves the Aoraki Mt Cook Airport at 8.30am.
The pilots and engineering staff will have been on the ground
for an hour, hauling planes out of the hanger, refuelling and
preparing them for flight. On a busy day, the last plane
departs for the glacier at 5.30pm. People will often have lunch
at the historic Hermitage Hotel, then take a flight.
The most popular flight is the Glacier Highlights route ó an
hourís trip through the majestic icy wilderness of the Tasman
Valley. On a still, cloudless day, it offers one of the most
spectacular panoramas in the world.
Passengers are recommended to take something warm just in case
itís a little chilly on the glacier ó but more often in summer
it will be hot as the sun bounces off the mountain slopes. The
only 'musts' are a pair of sunglasses and sensible shoes. A
glacier is no place for stilettos.
Seat belts securely fastened, the plane takes off from the Mt
Cook runway. Itís open seating, and everyone is guaranteed a
The plane heads up the eastern side of the Tasman Valley, a
great gash in the landscape, taking in the lower moraine (the
ridge formed by the debris left by the glacier). It passes by
the Liebig Range and the Murchison Glacier, and to the west, the
Hochstetter Icefall, a huge crumbling mass of ice which drains
the Grand Plateau from the Alps, and flows onto the Tasman
Glacier. Passengers on the left hand side get an incredible view
of the grandest peak of them all, Aoraki, Mt Cook (3754m).The
plane then lands on the mighty glacier ó 27km long, 3km wide and
Itís a smooth landing as the wheels are gently enveloped by
snow, and for the next 10 minutes, the engine is shut down.
Atop the glacier, 2600m above sea level, the views stretch
forever. You can lose sense of just how massive the glacier is,
until you look back at the plane dwarfed in the company of Mt
The pilot points out the landmarks, cameras start clicking,
snowballs are thrown. If it is still enough, you can hear the
glacier creaking and grinding its way slowly down the valley.
Otherwise, fresh snow absorbs all other sound.
Taking off downhill, the plane returns down the western side of
the valley, flanked by the Mt Cook range.
Mount Cook Ski Planes also take scenic flights across the Main
Divide of the Alps to the west coast glaciers of Fox and Franz
Josef, circling Mt Cook en route. The planes also take climbers
and skiers to higher altitudes.
This is protected country ó part of the Aoraki Mt Cook National
Park, which in turn is part of the Te Wahipounamu-South West New
Zealand World Heritage area ó and Mount Cook Ski Planes is
conscious of the privilege of flying here.
'We are very conscious of our planes not making too much noise
for other people enjoying the mountains,' says Royds.
'Especially the climbers on Mt Cook ó they are there to enjoy
Alex Miller is especially keen to protect this part of the
world. A pilot for 35 years, Miller began his career as a high
mountain guide based at Mt Cook. He has guided, flown and spent
many years with the Department of Conservation ó and now
part-owns the ski plane business and continues to take flights
to the mountains.
In September 2005, Mount Cook Ski Planes celebrated its 50th
anniversary with a reunion of pilots and staff.
Celebrations took place at The Hermitage Hotel, a renowned New Zealand
landmark since 1884. The Hermitage has been an integral part of
the business since it began, as the Wigley family once ran the
hotel as part of their development of Mt Cook as one of New
Zealandís premier tourist areas. Their slogan read 'Thousands
of feet above worry level'.
ZK BOX was the world's first retractable ski
plane and the beginning of flights on to the Tasman Glacier and
the regional airline, Mount Cook Airlines. It has now moved to
be displayed at Mt Cook itself.