Always wanted to get 'behind the wheel' of a plane? Frances Morton went for an introductory flight with the Auckland Aero Club to see if she liked flying high.
Driving down Auckland's Southern Motorway to Ardmore Airport, I suddenly wonder if aeroplanes have keys. This is how little I know about operating an aircraft. Yet, thanks to the Auckland Aero Club's introductory flight, I'll soon be at the controls of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, soaring at 460m above the Hauraki Gulf.
An introductory flight is a good way to sample flying without forking out $20,000 on training for a private pilot's licence. For $135, prospective pilots can discover what it is like to be in command of an aircraft, with the reassuring presence of an experienced instructor at your side.
I've long fancied the idea of subscribing to the glamorous aviatrix club, alongside the likes of Amelia Earhart, Jean Batten and Angelina Jolie. Auckland Aero Club's first-time flyers are split between the hopefuls, like me, who are dabbling with the idea getting a licence, and day-trippers seeking a one-off, exhilarating ride.
This is my second attempt at conquering the skies. The first was grounded by Auckland's fickle summer downpours but today's conditions, high cloud and a light breeze, are perfect for a nervous novice.
My aircraft's registration is JRA, which sounds so romantic in pilot speak - "Juliet, Romeo, Alfa". Flying instructor Paul Wyborn takes me on a walk around to check no bits are falling off or any other safety hazards before we climb aboard. I get the pilot's seat, which is always on the left-hand side of an aircraft, and slip on a set of nifty earphones with a microphone attached.
Before me is a baffling array of instruments and, yes, a key in the ignition. Wyborn turns it to start the engine. His fingers flurry around the flight deck, flicking switches and checking gauges, monitoring wind speed and other essential data then, with the throttle on full, Juliet-Romeo-Alfa is taxiing down the runway. Lift-off seems to happen by magic. I've got my hands on the control yoke and feet on the rudder pedals, shadowing the flight instructor's movements like a marionette puppet, but it's a mystery how we go from hurtling along the runway to gliding through the air.
The plane climbs to 460m as we follow the Clevedon Valley to the mouth of Wairoa River and out over Kawakawa Bay.
As my nerves subside, I allow myself glances of the beautiful view across Auckland. In fact, it's vital to keep an eye out. Ardmore Airport does not have air traffic control and the Cessna isn't kitted out with radar, so it is the pilot's responsibility to scope aircraft in the vicinity.
Being on guard for a looming mid-air collision while trying to grasp Paul's tutorial on flight dynamics gives me an idea of the mental gymnastics pilots must perform. New concepts mean new vocabulary. The yaw - sideways movement of the aircraft - is controlled by foot pedals. The extendable flaps on the edge of the wings are called ailerons. By turning the hand yoke like a steering wheel the ailerons move, tipping the aircraft to the side. I tilt the nose by pushing in or pulling out with my hands.
Eventually I get all elements steady and point towards the Coromandel Peninsula. It's time to take her for a spin. I turn the hand control to the left until the plane banks at a 30-degree angle to the horizon and hold on to my stomach as we glide around in a sweeping circle.
There is just enough to do the same in the other direction before we bring her in land.
At this stage, I'm happy to relinquish control to Paul. I'll leave it up to the real aviator, for now.
What: Introductory Flight
Where: Auckland Aero Club, Ardmore Airport, Papakura
How much: $135 for 30 minutes in a two-seater, $170 for a four-seater.
Who: Anyone. No age restriction or medical required
When: Anytime. The club operates seven days
Bookings: Ph (09) 220 8590