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Rediscovering the Thrill in Kerikeri, New Zealand
By Geoff Pritchard, Vancouver, British Columbia
March 2020 - As I walked up to the airplane, I realized, yes, it actually did look like a Tiger Moth. The distinctive de Havilland rudder and the swept wings, upper fuel tank, and squared-off front and rear cockpits, with the small drop-down doors, all paid homage to the original, though that was pretty much where direct comparisons ended. This airplane was built from a kit less than two years ago, and was called a Fisher Tiger Moth, a Canadian design that has proven popular, even here in New Zealand.
The Tiger Moth look-alike at Bay of Islands Airport home field. The hangars in the background come from a firm in Ontario.
I had met the builder, Steve Wynne, on a visit to New Zealand the previous year, in Kerikeri on the north island, and was soon offered, amazingly, the use of the airplane if my wife and I returned the next year. The thought of flying over this peaceful, green country surrounded by two oceans was to preoccupy much of my thoughts on return to Vernon, in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Subtle and strategic negotiations soon commenced with my wife, Mychelle, and although not without a number of eye rolls, some sighing, and blank stares, an agreement was struck to once again return to this island nation.
During the spring and summer back in Canada, I reviewed the requirements for a New Zealand Microlite licence and purchased all the aviation charts for the North Island. It was now a bit of a waiting game, though I passed the Canadian flying season flying my 1930 Fleet biplane and RV-8. We flew out of Vancouver just after the New Year, and arrived in Auckland somewhat jet lagged but full of anticipation at the thought of flying in this beautiful country.
Once again, I was faced with the challenge of driving the rental car on the left side of the road, and mixing up the turn signals with the windshield wipers, but we arrived safely in Kerikeri, at the northern tip of the north island, with a spotless windshield and ready to fly.
The town of Kerikeri, population 5,000.
I was soon at the airport, along with Steve, and was introduced to my instructor Colin, who was at a midpoint with Steve's instruction. After a brief orientation with the little Tiger Moth, and a look at the 100-hp Belgian UL260 flat-four powerplant, we were ready for the first of my required four hours of dual instruction. Having never been in an ultralight, microlight, or replica airplane, the cockpit sizing was actually quite generous, and the control and instrumentation very conventional. That was reassuring and familiar, and on startup the engine ticked over like a finely tuned large-displacement motorcycle engine. All good. My time in the rear cockpit of my Fleet was excellent preparation for the zero forward visibility, and S-turning down the asphalt runway at Bay of Islands Airport was pretty standard. Although an uncontrolled airport, local general aviation shares the facility with Dash 8's from Air New Zealand, and I found it quite a surprise to hear their professional modulated tones calling out circuit positions and ground maneuvers like any other of the small aircraft.
On applying full power on takeoff, I was surprised how quickly the 655-pound (empty) aircraft was airborne, and even with two up, it climbed away at about 500 feet per minute. Although somewhat prone to "twitching" about in wind or turbulence, the little Tiger could be trimmed to hands-off quite easily in calm air, and the engine didn't miss a beat, humming along at 3100 rpm cruise.
Upper air work was completed fairly quickly, and the Moth reacted predictably to all inputs. Carving a standard circuit (as per Canadian practices) was straightforward, though the radio work had a definite challenge: understanding the nasal, rapid-fire accent of New Zealand pilots. Time would eventually help, though double takes were fairly common, such as, "When I got home, I found my dog was did." "Oh, what did he do?" "He was did." "Did what?" "Niva moynd."
I was soon told it was time to go solo, and after positioning the Tiger on the runway and opening the throttle, I was amazed that I was airborne in about 300 feet and rapidly climbing. I headed out to the Pacific coast, about 10 minutes away, and felt free to marvel at the rolling hills, white sand beaches, and huge blue skies now that I was alone in the airplane and not being scrutinized during each maneuver. What a sweet feeling, and the solo thrill of decades ago, long buried in many logbook entries, returned once again, as a poignant reminder of the simple, private, thrill of flight.
That beautiful New Zealand coastline.
As the hours have ticked away at the controls of this marvellous little airplane, I have become closely connected to its quirks, and open cockpit joys, with lots of practice chasing the ball, using lots of rudder, and coaxing an occasional smooth three-point landing, with judicial use of throttle and a critical eye on the windsock. When frustrated at my progress at times, I only have to remind myself that I have the privilege to fly an open cockpit airplane in New Zealand, and to take a deep breath, and look over the side at this remarkably beautiful country floating by. And then I smile, that special flying smile.