Who says Kiwis can’t fly? Unlike their national bird, New Zealanders have spread their wings and taken on the world of aviation, not just as pilots, but as providers of world class flight training. Derek Royal takes a closer look at a land that is fast becoming a haven for aviators.
EasyJet pilot Harriet Pound says that flying an Airbus every day is a dream come true. A dream that she attributes to a chance meeting in the UK and a stint at CTC Aviation in New Zealand.
“I always knew I wanted a career which would bring variety and different challenges every day but I didn’t even consider flying as a possible career choice until I was at university,” Harriet says.
An English girl, Harriet graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages, and had originally planned to get a job on a graduate scheme with a London accountancy firm. However, during her second year at uni, she stumbled across the Northumbrian Universities Air Squadron (NUAS); planting the seed for a love affair with flying that endures to this day. That love affair eventually saw her complete her degree, spurn a job at a prominent accountancy firm and pursue her flying dream some 11,600 miles away in New Zealand.
“The job (at the accountancy firm) was the safe choice,” she says. “I knew I could do it, I knew I’d probably do well at it and it didn’t involve a significant financial outlay. I discussed it with the squadron flying instructors and the best bit of advice I received and which I’d give to anyone is this: ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal’. I realised that if I accepted the graduate scheme job, I’d always be wondering ‘what if?’ What if I’d taken the plunge, believed in myself and followed my dream? So that’s what I did.”
In February 2008 Harriet started training at CTC and she loved the experience, one that provided her with the skills and confidence she needed to be an airline pilot. “Living in New Zealand was incredible,” she says. “The course itself was enjoyable but very demanding. The learning curve was steep and there always seemed to be never-ending amounts of subject material to study and prepare for. Over 18 months, our knowledge base was built up from aspiring trainee pilots to CPLs with instrument ratings.”
Armed with a CPL and instrument rating; and the completion of an Airline Qualification Course (AQC), Harriet began looking for work but with the recession in full swing, jobs were scarce. So she waited in a hold pool for 10 months before starting her A320 type rating with easyJet.
“If there’s anything I learnt during my wait in the hold-pool, it was the value of having CTC on my training file,” she says. “CTC are key players in the aviation industry and I was confident throughout the ten months’ wait that if anyone would get a job, it would be CTC cadets as CTC have such strong partnerships with major airlines. Their product is known by the airlines; if the airlines employ a CTC cadet, they know the high level of training that cadet will have received and the exacting standard they will have been expected to meet throughout the course.”
Since gaining her type rating, Harriet has flown A319s and A320s to a wide variety of destinations throughout Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. She even spent 18 months based in Rome.
“I’ve acquired over 2500 hours on type and I love the variety I have every day at work – no two days are ever the same. The feeling of flying an aircraft is still incredible now, seven years after my first solo on the UAS. I am glad I decided to follow my dream job and, more importantly, I’m glad to have chosen to train in New Zealand – job opportunities will always be open to you.”
CTC Aviation is one of a number of New Zealand-based organisations well-known for producing airline pilots. Others include Nelson Aviation College (NAC), at Motueka on the northern tip of the South Island; and Massey University School of Aviation in Palmerston North, the only institution in New Zealand that offers aviation degree courses.
So why is New Zealand such a great place to learn to fly?
“New Zealand offers the challenges of high terrain, fast moving weather and strong winds, which contribute to the training of a well-rounded and highly competent pilot,” says Massey University School of Aviation CFI, Craig Whyte. “I think having such amazing terrain to fly over is always a great aspect and also the changing conditions where every day has its own challenges.
“I also think pilots in New Zealand are very approachable and happy to take time to talk about aviation, answer any questions and help out where they can. Kiwis are inherently friendly and very keen on aviation. They are also highly innovative and have a professional approach to aviation.”
Nelson Aviation College CEO Giles Witney adds that compared to many places, including Australia, traffic density in New Zealand is generally light, “and the country offers many beautiful areas to fly over”.
“New Zealand’s geography is both interesting and challenging, with ever-changing weather due to the country being long and thin, with a central divide and surrounded by water,” Witney says. “The country is also a beautiful one to travel around by air, there are lots of outdoor activities to enjoy and the aviation community is small, so everyone basically knows one another. As a result, there is a lot of camaraderie and aviators tend to support one another, sharing knowledge freely.”
NAC was established at Motueka in 1978 and has since developed into a highly regarded flight school with consistently high pass rates. A preferred Air New Zealand Flight Training Organisation, the school has been officially approved to offer student loans for flight training and provides an international flavour, boasting graduates from over 24 countries. Indeed, 25 per cent of current NAC students are from overseas.
So, given their proximity to New Zealand, one would assume that plenty of Aussies are crossing the Tasman for flight training?
“We have naturally always taught Australian students,” Giles Witney says. “We are hopeful of training more Australian citizens in the future with Australia now making up our third biggest online audience.”
Craig Whyte adds: “During the mid-1990’s, we had a lot of Australian students but that has slowed down possibly due to the changing dollar between Australia and New Zealand.”
While some Aussies seem to be looking at New Zealand as a flight training option, there are certainly plenty of advantages to those who do cross the ditch in search of quality training in a diverse yet challenging environment.
“Visas are not a requirement for Australian students looking at studying in New Zealand,” Witney says. “New Zealand has an open, positive and transparent Trans-Tasman agreement in place, so there are very few barriers (to Australian students) – other than not being able to convert a New Zealand frozen ATPL. Also, New Zealand citizens resident in Australia can come to Massey and avail themselves of the New Zealand Government student loan to do the programme.”
NAC has developed a sterling reputation for excellence, one that Witney believes has been built on selecting high-performing staff and students; having robust systems and good procedures; building strong relationships with stakeholders, like Air New Zealand, and making everyone accountable for their actions.
“All Nelson Aviation College instructors are dedicated to the common goal of seeing our students succeed as professional pilots,” he says. “The pass rates achieved reflect the high standards. We believe that our personalised approach assists trainees to attain both a high standard of flying skill and a professional attitude towards the aviation environment. With increasing numbers of aircraft in the skies, the emphasis on flight safety has never been more important. With thorough effective training, students will gain complete safety awareness as they develop their skills and knowledge.”
Then there’s the fact that Motueka is one of the world’s best kept secrets: a delightful, yet unknown location that offers excellent weather, coastal plains (good for simulating engine failures), stunning snow-capped mountains and clean air providing excellent long range visibility.
“This results in uninterrupted practical flight training and beneficial training for our students,” Witney says. “Nelson (the largest town in the province) also provides our students with an excellent ‘hub’ as we are located at the geographical centre of New Zealand. Therefore, our students can usually fly to either the North Island or other parts of the South Island.”
But with Motueka being such a small town (population: a tad over 7,000), what do students do for recreation?
“Nelson city (which is located a stone’s throw from Motueka) has almost everything you need – but if you need something more that only larger cities offer like a stadium concert, it’s only an 85 minute flight with a domestic carrier to Auckland; or 35 minutes to the capital city, Wellington. On the positive side, students will not get so easily distracted while they are training with us.”
When it comes to accommodation, Motueka offers several options, including onsite accommodation at the airport training facility, self-catering, or homestay, ranging in price from NZ110 to NZ$200 per week.
Meanwhile, across the Cook Strait (the stretch of water that separates the North and South islands) and an hour-and-a-half drive north of Wellington, lies the city of Palmerston North, home to the Massey University School of Aviation.
Established in 1990, Massey has a unique program whereby academic studies and flight training are integrated. “We use scenario-based flight training which is competency-based methodology rather than the traditional approach,” Whyte explains. “Flight training is carried out in state-of-the-art glass cockpit aircraft owned by Massey – it is not outsourced. The three year degree course has an equivalence approval from CAA NZ wherein our students do not have to appear for licensing examinations, but instead receive ATPL theory credits based on their Massey University results. This unique program isn’t available anywhere else in New Zealand and probably nowhere else in the southern hemisphere.”
So, why study for an aviation degree?
“Two main reasons,” Whyte replies. “If for some reason in the future you cannot fly; for example, a medical issue, then you have a great platform for alternative employment in aviation. Also, the highly automated aircraft these days have changed the role of the pilot from a manipulator of the controls to a manager of cockpit systems. In addition to the technical skills the B Av ATP program prepares students with the soft skills, i.e. resource management, decision making, threat and error management, et cetera, that are required in contemporary airline operation. Our graduates are not just pilots – they are aviators with a difference.”
Whyte attended Massey as a student from 1995 and after gaining his Bachelor of Aviation and Diploma in Business Studies, started as an instructor at his alma mater in 1999. He attributes the school’s sterling reputation as a provider of quality graduates to having a close knit group of instructors and support personnel where everyone works towards the common goal of developing professional pilots.
“Also having an environment where everyone knows each other rather than just being a number is very important,” he adds. “From the academic point of view having lecturers that are highly experienced and qualified ensures the students have a great learning experience.”
So with a small percentage of foreign students studying at Massey (around10 per cent), are there any differences between training local pilots as opposed to foreign students?
“I don’t feel there is a major difference as we have a rigorous selection process,” Whyte replies. “We use the Symbiotics Selection system, which assesses students for their rate of learning through a computer-based selection tool. As long as a student is motivated and has an attitude of wanting to develop into a professional pilot it does not make a difference where they have come from.”
The school is based at two locations: the Milson Flight Systems Centre (MFSC) at Palmerston North Airport, and the Massey University Manawat? campus in Palmerston North. MFSC houses the latest Diamond aircraft fleet and flight simulators, flight instruction staff and some academic staff, as well as the school’s maintenance facility. The school maintains a large fleet of single and twin-engined training aircraft, including the Diamond DA-40 and DA-42 (twin trainer) as part of its Air Transport Pilot program and all aircraft are fitted with the latest Garmin cockpit and Spidertracks tracking systems.
In fact, the Diamonds have emerged as a popular trainer throughout New Zealand, not just at Massey but at other pilot training organisations such as CTC Aviation.
So what are the advantages of being based in Palmerston North?
“As we are in the lower North Island we have easy access to all areas north, east, west and south,” Whyte says. “Also with the Ohakea military aerodrome being in very close proximity there is the added dimension of operating around complex airspace.”
Palmerston North is also great for students due to its reasonable cost of living and sensibly priced accommodation, while the benefits of studying at the Manawat? campus includes the ease of getting around a city where walking and bike riding are popular (not to mention cheap and healthy) forms of transportation.
Accommodation options for Massey students include the Halls of Residence and student units, homestay, private flats, and a range of temporary digs nearby.
The Rotary Pathway
Simon Spencer-Bower is one of the most experienced and highly respected pilots in the world. An aviator for almost 50 years, the man isn’t just a legend in the rotary game, he is also an accomplished aerobatics pilot who often performs at the world famous Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow.
Spencer-Bower owns Wanaka Helicopters, which does scenic flights and general charter work in addition to flight training. As a result, its instructors stay current in operational flying and are able to share that real world experience with their students. The experience of its instructors is one of Wanaka Helicopters’ selling points, so it should come as no surprise that Spencer-Bower prides himself on hiring pilots with plenty of hours and genuine know-how.
Being situated on the doorstep of the World Heritage Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks means Wanaka Helicopters can offer scenic flights that encompass more epic land and seascapes and spectacular vistas than anywhere else in New Zealand. It also means that their students get to learn their trade in the same spectacular and challenging environment.
“We operate a variety of sizes of helicopters, which means that no minimum passenger numbers apply to our flights,” says a company spokesperson. “We can cater for all number combinations. Wanaka Helicopters also offers a product called Heli-Adventures, which includes soft adventure type activities for the more adventurous, such as mountain biking, fishing, hiking and jet boating.”
Surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountains in the world, the school is well-known for its emphasis on mountain flying; even at the ab initio training level. And now that the New Zealand government has approved student loans for the company’s Diploma courses, there’s sure to be even more interest in the broad range of options available at a school that boasts an excellent reputation within the rotary industry. The first intake of Diploma students began their studies in March 2015, while another intake was expected to commence in July.
And now that we’re talking Wanaka, the Kiwi aviation extravaganza, a.k.a. Warbirds Over Wanaka, is on again for three days over Easter 2016. Nestled on the shores of an azure blue lake amongst the mighty peaks of the Southern Alps, Wanaka is the most spectacular venue in the world for an airshow. The natural amphitheatre created by these mountains provides a backdrop of stunning scenery.
Rated among the top four warbirds events in the world, Warbirds Over Wanaka 2016 will feature many exciting air and ground events celebrating classic aircraft and warbirds, as well as modern jets, sport aircraft and a multitude of other aviation attractions. For budding students who want a taste of the landscape and a good dose of spectacular aviation, a trip to Wanaka is a must and if you want to do it in style, Grand Pacific Tours put together a pretty swish package that hundreds of Aussies have been indulging in for a good few years now.
So if you’re fortunate enough to attend this biennial warbirds spectacular next year, spare a thought for the pilots as they skillfully manoeuvre some of the world’s most legendary aircraft with an ease and dexterity that only comes with experience and world class training. New Zealand’s golden reputation as an aviation haven is alive and well, a legacy seen in all sectors of the industry worldwide, from airlines to GA and even during spectacular events such as Warbirds Over Wanaka. Who said Kiwis can’t fly?