Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hang gliding over New Zealand's spectacular scenery

Plane: Hang Glider 
Route: NZGY, Local 
Weather: Clear, 36 degrees, wind 070 degrees at 5 knots

Gina and I are in the midst of a rather spectacular bucket list trip. We spent the first two weeks of July in Australia and are now in Queenstown, New Zealand. Trip planning consumed many months as you may expect and we thought hang gliding in particular would be fun and unique. Similar to when we went ballooning in Barcelona, it's something you can do at home in the States, but why not do it when you're someplace else with incredible scenery?

The drive to Glenorchy. I know, right?

It's really hard to put into words just how freaking beautiful New Zealand is. I mean, it seriously seems like every turn of the road, your jaw drops. The drive this morning from Queenstown to Glenorchy is often labeled as one of the best in the world and, having now driven it myself, I find that point hard to argue. Glacial lakes, mountains on both sides, a twisting road. And at the end, a little aerodrome where we eventually strapped into a hang glider for one hell of a scenic flight.

The two of us all bundled up prior to our flights

We had discussed going hang gliding before leaving home; I think Gina first came up with the idea and it sounded pretty neat to me. I'm definitely the less adventurous of the two of us but when in Rome New Zealand... or something like that. Long story short, we met two couples while wine tasting yesterday, had dinner together last night, and afterwards they mentioned they were going hang gliding this morning. Turns out one of the guys, Robbie, owns a tour company and was able to snag us two spots last-minute.

Prior to leaving Queenstown we had to stop in an office for a weigh-in and to sign away our lives on a couple forms. The drive to Glenorchy was, as I mentioned above, amazing. We all arrived at the airport and eventually settled on a flying order; Gina was doing first, me second. The employees helped us into a couple more layers - it was only 36 on the ground without a 40+ mph wind in the face at 3,500 feet - and then it was Gina's turn.

Gina getting strapped into the cocoon-like passenger harness

Hooked into the glider while the pilot, Ian, slides into the tandem harness

Sliding from vertical to horizontal as the glider rolls forward

All strapped in and ready to fly

One final check of all the straps and harnesses by the ground crew

You can see the process in the above photos - basically, the passenger is strapped into a sleeping bag-like harness, which is attached to the pilot and the glider. The passenger stands on a ladder while the ground crew hooks everything up, then the pilot attaches himself to the front. After all the straps are secure, the pilot allows the glider to roll forward while rocking their body into a horizontal position.

Everything now in place, there's a final check by the ground crew. Once pilot, passenger, and tow plane are ready the ultralight starts rolling. Within seconds, the rope connecting it to the pilot's harness pulls the light glider into the sky.

Lifting off from the nearly frozen turf

Climbing out to the south along the lake

I watched Gina take off, her glider maneuvering in position behind the tow plane as they ascended over the airport. But it was now my turn to fly, so I didn't get to watch for very long. I went through the exact same process to get strapped in. My pilot, a friendly Italian named Andre who's been flying as long as I've been alive, and I chatted for a minute or two before it was time to take to the winter sky.

Video from both inside (if you can call it that) and outside the cockpit!

Honestly, the weirdest feeling in my stomach the entire day was when the tow plane began to roll. I seriously didn't expect such quick acceleration. Coupled with the ground rushing past maybe two feet below my exposed face, the sensation was very different than anything I've experienced before in flying. But the ride smoothed out quickly as soon as we lifted off, climbing away from the small grass strip in the (very cold) air.

My turn to fly - just about to take off

Acceleration was brisk, much more than I expected

Looking west over the lake just after takeoff

Soaring over the northern arm of Lake Wakatipu

It was really cold but that didn't spoil the incredible views

Once airborne and being towed, the sensations were very normal to me. The views were obviously vastly superior to your average Ohio soybean field. I kept looking all around, taking in the mountains and valleys and the insanely blue water below. Looking north past Glenorchy, you could see the end of the lake where all the rivers from the mountains converge; it was dry now but I imagine it looks quite different in the spring with the snow melt and runoff in full swing.

The tow lasted probably 10 minutes, a gain of roughly 2,500 feet. It was smooth until the last 500 feet at which point the winds over the mountains made for a seriously bumpy ride. Kind of fun, actually, but you can certainly see us getting tossed about if you watch the video.

Just above 3,500 feet Andre pulled the rope and the tow plane turned away. It got beautifully quiet. Yes, there was the sound of the wind (did I mention it was kind of cold?) rushing past us but that was a very peaceful sort of almost-quiet. He held the GoPro out and we took some photos, turning every which way to capture the amazing scenery. Then he packed the tow rope away in his harness.

Now it was time for some fun.

Doing a few steep turns

Love this one - another glider taking off beneath us

A bit more crankin' and bankin'

Gina snapped this one of us from the ground

Approaching the airport after losing a couple thousand feet doing "tricks"

Another ground shot for a little perspective

Doing another stall before circling to land

Again, I'm not Mr. Adventure all the time. I still loathe roller coasters. Yet I'll do aerobatics somewhat willingly. I think it's a control issue.

So I was at least a tiny bit apprehensive when it was time for the "tricks" portion of the ride, to use Andre's term. No different than right before I do a loop or snap roll in the Stearman, I suppose. And in similar fashion, ten seconds later I'm having a blast up there like a little kid.

We did some steep turns, spirals, and a few stalls. Standard maneuvers in most aerial machines, really, though being exposed to the wind with New Zealand's Southern Alps as a backdrop does kick the experience up a few notches. Pulling a few G's here and there, zooming all over the sky, well... it doesn't get much better than that. My smile in nearly every photo attests to this fact.

Requisite photo of a field of New Zealand sheep down below

Andre begins his flare after a very quick and steep approach

Coasting to a stop after a smooth landing

I think the smile nicely illustrates how much I enjoyed the experience

Approaching to land was another interesting change in perspective. We'd been soaring for a while and suddenly we circled over the field, Andre adjusted his position, and we dropped in at what felt like the rate of maximum descent of an unladen swallow.

There was a brief flare-like transition before the wheels touched and we were again rolling across the cold grass. Thinking about it in hindsight, I suppose it's a similar approach to what you see from a skydiver.

Ian doing some stunts with his next passenger

Another passenger takes off after we've returned from our flights

One being towed, another soaring free

Preparing for the next set of passengers

Prior to leaving I was talking with Ian, Gina's pilot, about his experience flying. Like Andre, he's been at it for many years - I forget how many. Knowing how long some gliders can remain aloft, I had to ask him about his personal best. He said that he's remained in the sky for over 7 hours in the summer while climbing as high as 14,000 feet in thermals. Pretty impressive.

Standing at the end of the pier in Glenorchy

I think it goes without saying (even though I've already said it) that this was a very unique aviation experience. Hang gliding may not be something I ever take up on my own but I can certainly appreciate it. It's fascinating to think that a 40 kg craft can carry something like 200 kg of pilot, passenger, and equipment and maintain such maneuverability.

Total bucket list item. Highly recommended. I'd go up again in a heartbeat.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File


  1. Awesome. I don't know why, but I was a bit surprised to see that your pilot appeared to be attached to the tow line rather than the glider itself (or did I just misinterpret what I saw?).

    You definitely chose the right scenery for the mission!

    1. Yep, I didn't even realize during the actual flight - only after I looked at the photos and videos back on the ground!

  2. I was wondering the same thing. The tow line looked to be connected to his harness instead of the glider itself.

    Awesome video and pictures! I think my Bride would do this, me, I'm not so sure.

    1. It was still more tame than many flights. I think the turbulence over the mountains may have been more jarring than the spirals, actually.