Up­side­down over South­land

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The un­ex­pected thing about do­ing a loop-theloop in a lit­tle yel­low bi­plane over South­land’s Waimea Val­ley is that it gives you dry teeth. As the view ahead of sky and cloud sud­denly fills with up­side­down pad­docks and braided river, the straps of the har­ness bite into your shoul­ders, and your stom­ach lurches, you ei­ther gasp, or shriek, or grin. For me it’s all three, in that or­der; and all that open-mouth ac­tion plus the rush of the wind leaves you with bone-dry teeth – and a tremen­dous feel­ing of ex­hil­a­ra­tion.

I’m at the Croy­don Air­craft Com­pany at Man­dev­ille, near Gore, where men like Colin Smith and his son Chris painstak­ingly re­store vin­tage air­craft for rich men with a par­tic­u­larly ex­pen­sive hobby. The big hangar is packed with planes in var­i­ous states of re­pair, most of them with their alarm­ingly flimsy-look­ing frame­work open to view as they await the next stage in the long jour­ney back to air­wor­thi­ness.

Chris points to a stack of fine­grained tim­ber, spe­cially im­ported from Tas­ma­nia and Canada for its strength and light­ness: ‘‘Some of this costs $60 a me­tre,’’ he says. ‘‘And then we saw it up and throw half of it away.’’ It’s lam­i­nated and shaped into beau­ti­ful pro­pel­lers – ‘‘we get a lot of th­ese in af­ter col­li­sions with con­crete water tanks’’ – or used as struts or for the mould­ing around fuse­lages that are then cov­ered with skin-tight polyester, more re­silient than the orig­i­nal Ir­ish linen.

In a nearby hangar, the fin­ished re­sults of all that care and skill are on dis­play: mostly de Hav­il­land air­craft, some of them very rare, like the sturdy blue Drag­on­fly, one of just two re­main­ing from the 1930s and the only one still fly­ing. Be­yond it are sev­eral Tiger Moths, a Fox Moth that once car­ried mail to the West Coast (and white­bait on the re­turn jour­ney), and a Do­minie Rapide that I’m amused to dis­cover un­zips be­neath the fuse­lage for main­te­nance.

There are sev­eral more un­usual air­craft, in­clud­ing a Ger­man glider with bent wings, an Aer­ma­c­chi from Ohakea look­ing like some­thing straight out of Top Gun and, at the other ex­treme, the ex­tra­or­di­nary Pither. This bizarre con­trap­tion is Colin Smith’s air­wor­thy replica of Bert Pither’s in­ven­tion, which it’s claimed Pither flew on Oreti Beach at In­ver­cargill in 1910. Pither was a bi­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer, and his seethrough mono­plane rests lightly on its three bike wheels, both un­gainly and grace­ful, a tes­ta­ment to one man’s vi­sion – and courage.

My courage is now to be tested in the Tiger Moth sit­ting out­side. Pi­lot Ryan Southam togs me up in leather fly­ing jacket and hel­met, com­plete with gog­gles, and I clam­ber into the pas­sen­ger seat which, rather ex­cit­ingly, is the one in front. This is back-to-ba­sics fly­ing – Ryan jerk­ing at the pro­pel­ler by hand to get it spin­ning. My lawn­mower is more so­phis­ti­cated. But then the en­gine catches with a throaty roar, the pro­pel­ler dis­ap­pears into a blur, and the plane vi­brates. We trun­dle off down the grass airstrip to take off, as he’s al­ready warned me, on one wheel to com­pen­sate for the cross­wind. In no time we’re 1000 feet above the ground, the view framed by the up­per and lower wings. Ryan asks through the head­phones if I’m game for a loop. I give him the thumbs-up, and straight away feel the pres­sure on my har­ness as we gen­tly head up, and up, and up – and then there’s the river and patch­work of pad­docks, up­side down in front of me. It’s shock­ing, amaz­ing, dis­ori­ent­ing and thrilling; and the only dis­ap­point­ment is that it’s all over far too soon.

Croy­don Air­craft Com­pany of­fers joyrides in open and cabin air­craft, start­ing at $55 for 10 min­utes; see croy­don­air­craft.com

Man­dev­ille is 10 min­utes from Gore; there is a li­censed restau­rant, The Moth, at the site.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Croy­don Air­craft Com­pany.

Dis­tinc­tive: Dat­ing from the 1930s, Tiger Moths are in­stantly recog­nis­able.

Photo: GLENNARMSTRONG

No prob­lem: Ryan Southam is an ex­pert aer­o­bat­ics pi­lot.

Photo: FAIRFAX NZ

His­toric Pither air­craft: Croy­don Air­craft Com­pany’s air­borne replica of Ge­orge Pither’s air­craft which, it is claimed, flew at Oreti Beach in 1910.

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