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A Day at the Beach
By Geoff Pritchard, EAA 348315, Vancouver, British Columbia
April 2020 - For most of us, the word "beach" immediately invokes thoughts of a relaxed freedom, stemming from our early primal experiences of cavorting on seemingly endless acres of soft sand, with all manner of toys and primitive floatation devices in tow, including of course, the ubiquitous pail and shovel. What seemed to be glaringly and wonderfully obvious back then was the glorious lack of parental constraints, save for an occasional barked directive, delivered halfheartedly over a dog-eared paperback, not to go too far, or too deep, knowing full well that there would be no corporal penalties if only mildly obeyed, or even ignored.
Fast forwarding to adult years, and still the word "beach" contains all the magical connotations of our youth, though the locations perhaps have become more exotic, with the texture of the sand turned a powdery white, the scrub pine trees morphing into swaying palms, and juice boxes into elaborate, colourful concoctions festooned with all manner of fruit.
As pilots, as our range steadily increased with experience, we perhaps find ourselves flying over a beach on our way to our destination, and I would be willing to wager that most of us, while constantly scanning for that possible unplanned landing spot, would also wonder if the aircraft we were piloting might just be able to touch down on that very beach — an off-airport excursion that would return us briefly to that unrestricted sensation of long ago, and delivered by our small aircraft to boot!
While exercising the privilege of flight in New Zealand this past winter, those same thoughts and feelings returned to me on a somewhat industrial scale while on a flight to Kaitaia Aerodrome, about 60 miles from my base in Kerikeri, on the North Island. On seeing a stretch of sand off to my right, I diverted from my course to take a closer look, and what I saw when finally lined up was staggering …this was the famous Ninety Mile Beach that I had heard of, but somehow was not prepared to see a beach of such immense proportions, heading north into infinity, and mist, toward Cape Rengia, the furthest northerly point of New Zealand.
Dropping down to 500 feet, I followed this endless ribbon of sand for several miles, estimating by the sand colouration that the tide was very low, giving way to an absolutely flat, smooth surface, by my estimate, about 200 to 300 feet wide, and seemingly endless in length, and, to my utter amazement, completely deserted. Climbing up and turning back toward Kaitaia, about 15 miles away, I struggled to recalibrate the word "beach" in my mind, catapulting the meaning from pleasant and relaxing feature of a vacation, with a visible start and finish, to that of a coastal "time zone" of immense proportions. The drone of the engine and the need to navigate put my state of reverie on hold, while I entered the circuit, and eventual coffee at the clubhouse.
First landing on a beach! Photo by Geoff Pritchard.
After pleasantries with some of the local pilots, and restraining myself somewhat, I casually asked if the local flying community ever landed on Ninety Mile Beach. I was told that under normal circumstances it was not allowed by the powers that be, but the club was organizing a sanctioned "beach day" fly-out the next day, so why don't you come along? Incredulous, I scanned the small group sipping the kiwi version of coffee, and thought perhaps I was being put on, being the novelty nationality at the table. Dumbfounded at my luck, I began to stammer out some questions, and was told that once a summer, when the low tides coincided with a Saturday afternoon, the club organized a beach landing for the members. This consisted of a lamb and sausage BBQ at noon at the clubhouse, followed by a mandatory briefing and aircraft count, and a pause while the advance team drove about 15 kilometers up the beach to set up the requisite cones and flags to mark the "runway." Unbelievably, my beach landing fantasy was about to take place, supervised, safe, and legal.
As I strapped into the Fisher Tiger Moth microlight that Steve Wynne, owner and builder, had so generously made available to me, I couldn't help be a tad distracted by my good fortune, and throughout the flight back to the Bay of Islands Airport, images of the beach, bordered by a deep blue gentle surf, were front and center in my thoughts.
After chatting up Steve, and friend and CFI Colin Jordan, we agreed to take both the Moth, and a popular microlight called an Allegro, to Kaitaia for the beach day, and at midmorning the following day we convened at the airfield to brief on the upcoming flight. Steve was to occupy the front cockpit of the Moth, and Colin and my wife Mychelle settled into the Allergo. We arrived in time to attend the 12:00 briefing, where we, along with the other pilots, watched as club member Peter Wright highlighted the beach expedition in terms of prevailing winds, radio frequencies, and circuit procedures. We added our aircraft to the list, which totaled seven, and proceeded to the BBQ. I remarked to Peter that, other than the Moth, the remaining aircraft were all of the nosewheel variety, and would that be safe to land on a sand runway? I was assured that the sand would be tightly compressed and that it will seem almost as firm as asphalt.
After calculating fuel needs, and a general discussion of a common beach approach, one by one the aircraft — a few microlights, a Cessna 182, a Cherokee, a Tomahawk, and the Fisher Moth — took to the sky, and headed the 20 miles to rendezvous with the beach markers.
The winds, as predicted, were from the south, with the addition of an on and off again onshore breeze from the Pacific. Flying slightly inland, we could soon see the team truck, then several parked aircraft, and as we turned final, the flags danced around with the changeable breeze, and after a few busy seconds of stick and rudder inputs, and one last look over the nose at the limitless runway, we thumped down onto the very solid sand, just as advertised, and found a place in the oceanfront lineup. We flew here. Incredible.
Fisher Tiger Moth on Ninety Mile Beach. Photo by Geoff Pritchard.
After an hour or so of chatting with other pilots and passengers, climbing the towering sand dunes, taking many photos, and exchanging notes on this very unique afternoon, we thanked Peter on behalf of the Kaitaia Flying Club for all the effort to organize such a peak experience. With a last look around, we pointed into the wind, throttled up, and lifted off from what will truly remain as one of the most memorable flying adventures I have experienced. Though that stage in life, of appreciating the beach environment solely with pail and shovel in hand, has been eclipsed by the passage of time, what remains consistent through the decades is the ingrained tranquility and personal sense of freedom that the expanse of sand and water instills in us, and then magnified exponentially by the privilege of arriving in this unspoiled world, by way of the miracle of flight.
The last three to leave. Photo by Geoff Pritchard.