Loops give aerial thrills by the skin of the teeth
Exhilarating experiences await Pamela Wade after taking off in a vintage biplane.
The unexpected thing about doing a loop-the-loop 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, your stomach lurches, and you either gasp, 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 –z 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 flimsylooking framework open to view as they await the next stage in the long journey back to airworthiness.
Chris points to a stack of fine-grained 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 maker, and his see-through 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 cross-wind. 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.
Distinctive: Dating from the 1930s, Tiger Moths are instantly recognisable.
No problem: Ryan Southam is an expert aerobatics pilot.