Andrew Potter catches Sounds Air flight S8903 from Wellington to Westport.
Pilatus PC-12, a Swiss aircraft built for short regional hops. There's only one propeller, and it's on the nose like a Spitfire. Mike Sierra Foxtrot! The two Sounds Air PC-12s working the Wellington-Wesport route were previously owned by the Royal Australian Flying Doctor service.
Who's driving? A raven-haired pilot with an indeterminable European accent. She gives us a safety briefing then starts flicking at myriad switches at the business end and the turboprop engine rasps into life. There's another guy sitting alongside her but he's careful not to touch anything, so must be along for the ride. I know all this because there's no cockpit door.
My seat: There are nine seats on this little eggbeater, with one on each side of a narrow aisle. I'm in No5, which is third row back. Great view as we steam out of a very windy Wellington.
Price: $199, booked a couple of days before. Air New Zealand stopped flying to Wesport this year as it cut back on less profitable regional routes. Sounds Air has taken over, flying there 26 times a week, albeit with a smaller aircraft than Air New Zealand's Beech 1900D. There's one price for all tickets.
Entertainment: Being able to peer into the cockpit is a real treat for an aviation geek like myself. After leaving Wellington, I can see on a digital map that we are flying 241 degrees southwest for 60 nautical miles. A clock counts down the distance and time to the next waypoint before we switch to a new heading. I can also see the weather radar. Fascinating. Before long Westport Airport is visible out the front window. It's amazing how steep the decent is when you can see out the pointy end.
Food and drink:
Bag of chips I bought from a snack machine before boarding. Our pilot is too busy flying the plane to distribute coffee and biscuits.
Fellow passengers: Six folk who appear to be hardened West Coasters, one child, my girlfriend and me. My lady grips the arm rest with white knuckles as we have a few bumps over Cook Strait.
Service: Our pilot is extremely friendly and cheery considering she's also the inflight service director, flight attendant and baggage handling co-ordinator.
Toilets: Cross your legs, there's no toilet on board, though this flight is only 45 minutes.
Airport experience: The Sounds Air check-in guy at Wellington Airport laughs as we offer our passports as proof we're his passengers, and gives us each a blue laminated boarding card with our seat number written in marker pen. Nearby, an Air NZ captain jokes about how bad the wind is. Westport Airport terminal is the size of a large garage.
Would I fly this again? Absolutely, Sounds Air offer a great service to a small but important part of New Zealand.