Another Kiwi Aeronautical Anniversary

Kiwi invention celebrates 50 + years

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 emotional experience.

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 summertime.

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 Mt Cook.

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 name. 

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 engines.'

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 window seat.

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 600m deep. 

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 Cook.

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 the solitude.'

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.