By Jill Herron
Overseas visitors getting airborne over Cromwell with New Zealand’s only towed hang-gliding operation are “absolutely loving” the scenery, according to pilot and owner Ian Clark(left).
Australian, Chinese and American clients have been most prevalent at recently-opened 45 South Tandem Hang gliding, with the Chinese outshining the rest in their level of enthusiasm for both experience and area.
Flying off the Sugarloaf airstrip at Lowburn, the company plan to run daily flights, initially from bookings sourced through the offices of parent company, Skytrek, in Queenstown.
He hoped an office could be opened in Cromwell “in a year or two” once the business was established.
“It’s a great spot, close to Wanaka, and we hope we will be able to capture the through traffic coming south from here too.”
Clark, who has flown hang-gliders for 26 years, said his last four winters had been spent flying clients in Glenorchy, as part-owner of Skytrek.
“We’ve come here because it’s drier – not so close to that West Coast weather. And we can fly year round here in Cromwell, we only had access to the strip in Glenorchy during winter.”
Atop the Sugarloaf the day we visited the only runway movements were made by meandering sheep as a passing southerly had stopped flights. Most days Cromwell’s weather had been accommodating, however, and Clark, his microlight pilot and ground crew of one expected to be working most days.
He was enjoying the quiet launch site and wide, empty skies all around.
“It’s my passion. It’s very quiet up there and it’s as close as you can get to actually having two wings on your back and flying like a bird. Sharing that with others is amasing. It’s something people remember the rest of their lives.”
In the wheeled tandem glider, client and pilot harness in horizontally, one above the other. The glider is attached by rope to the purpose-built ‘tug boat of the sky’, a Dragonfly microlight. Definitely a strong and steady type, the microlight’s key attribute is the ability to fly very, very slow.
Towed hang-gliding is a great option, says Clark, as anyone can do it including the elderly and disabled. It also meant if the wind was blowing the wrong way you could about-face and take off in the opposite direction –something you can’t do foot-launching off a hillside. There were no other commercial tow operations in this country, he said, but a handful overseas in places where people couldn’t access suitable mountain areas.
As a safety precaution, there are five different ways the tow rope can be unhitched, including a ‘weak link’ which will automatically snap if a certain level of tension is reached.
Generally the glider pilot flicks the let-go switch about eight minutes into the flight, at around 3500ft above sea level. The pair gracefully go their separate ways, the tug plane often returning to base to lift another glider. The airborne glider will spent another 10 or 15 minutes swooping and diving in the lee of the mighty Pisa Range. Most passengers were relaxed enough by this stage, he says, to opt for a trick or two.
Clark’s eyes light up as he explains tight turns and what a forced stall involves. With his one and only scrape in 26 years being a sprained ankle sustained landing on a hidden rock in long grass, it seems worrying would be pointless. Better to just strap in and enjoy the ride.