Technically this may not have been the best day of my life but that is only because it is up against some stiff competition, the day I got married (obviously), birth of my children, first solo, water rating, discovering beer and so forth.
I've been flying for thirty years, mostly in syndicated aeroplanes but lately in a very extravagant but wholly worthwhile 180HP Carbon Cub that I was permitted to buy. This plane is like no other that I have flown as it's short field performance is utterly astounding.
Rather like Pooh and the honey pot, there has been a lot of uncertainty as to which of us is meant to be on top, but after trying one or two different positions, we have settled down with the Carbon Cub underneath and me on top. Mostly.
Anyway I've been planning to get some experience with mountain flying for some years now and with a friend being killed flying in South Africa recently I decided to get some professional assistance and head to New Zealand's mountainous South Island.
Wanaka is a good 10 hours flight time for a Carbon Cub so there is a little bit of planning and a window of benign weather was needed. The good forecast and a clear week finally aligned in mid November.
There are two Carbon Cubs in NZ, mine and one (ZK-PBC) in Wanaka - near several national parks and a very mountainous part of our beautiful country. The owners of PBC had kindly agreed to take me for a day trip into the back country and try out a few strips. Also on for some training was Peter Hendriks from Classic Flights in Wanaka (http://www.classicflights.co.nz).
Flying through narrow mountain valleys is not something that happens often where I normally fly and it's all pretty far outside my comfort zone. What is clear is that the Carbon Cub is much more at home than I am in the mountains. Some of the 'bumps' have me tightening my seat belt more than a little.
Our first stop is at the Burke Strip in the Haast Pass (a deep pass over the Southern Alps). This strip is a couple of hundred metres of two wheel tracks between some low scrub near the main Haast road. There are a couple of helicopters "spraying" (a euphemism for dropping 1080 'possum poison pellets) but they stay well clear while we are making a "circuit" of the strip.
What's rapidly apparent is that my short field technique sucks and that any loss of directional control on touchdown would be disastrous, there is just no margin for error. Fortunately there is a good length (for the Cub) and I managed to keep to the wheel tracks
Basically I'm delighted to achieve a respectable landing and just buzzing with the whole experience! Sadly this feeling is shortly to be replaced by an "oh dear!" moment. It seems I did not wait for the Spidertrack unit (an onboard GPS based position reporting system) to shutdown properly. Failure to follow the correct shutdown procedure results in a search ad rescue callout, which is the whole point of the unit, i.e. if you have an accident then S&R will be called out without any intervention from the pilot or crew.
By now you will have guessed what happened. My wife and nominated contacts got an automated SOS text message while I'm raving about the strip, scenery, cubs and whatever, and quite oblivious to the pandemonium back home.
Taking off from Burke we head a short distance to the Haast township for fuel where we are met by a girl from the local garage with a garbled message about one of our beacons going off. After a bit of a scrabble inside the aircraft we confirm that the beacons have not gone off and about this time the other possibility starts to dawn on me.
Sadly there is no cell phone coverage at Haast so after the short walk to the garage and a "difficult" phone call home matters were resolved and the search and rescue stood down. Talk about feeling a chump! The only good news is the proof positive that the system works but the "chump" feeling was hard to shake off.
Neil's Beach is a tiny factory based strip and the Gorge River strips are all similar to the Burke strip, i.e. short, narrow with interesting approaches. Fortunately the weather is ideal as in any kind of cross wind these would be very hairy indeed.
The Gorge River is the home of Bean Sprout and his charming wife who make us very welcome for a cup of tea and a generous gift of crayfish just plucked from the sea outside.
A Dutch film crew were making a documentary about people who live in remote locations and the arrival of two Carbon Cubs was clearly a big excitement for them. I rather think I will come off as babblingly incoherent such was my excitement as having successfully landed in such a remote location and the hospitality.
The cameraman clearly did not know about the sandflys and had constructed long sleeves from gaffe tape.
The return flight was over some spectacularly rugged mountainous country over ridges and saddles, down valleys, with a fabulous picnic lunch at the Cascades strip and an incredible landing on a gravel bar at Lake Alabaster.
A few days in the mountains is enough to show that there is much much more to learn about flying than I thought possible. The environment is truly inhospitable and the weather can turn in a few minutes (luckily not while I was there) and it's easy to see how things could go very badly wrong