01 May 2014

Wanganui's Capital Flyer

Flying from Wanganui to Wellington with Sounds Air is more like an adventure than a piece of routine travel. The Wanganui Chronicle was offered a free trip there and back last week. I was the lucky taker and I got to sit in the co-pilot's seat in front of all those instruments and talk to pilot Andrew Daken through headphones. Sounds Air began the Wanganui-Wellington service at the end of January. Passengers average four per flight - which is not enough - but the numbers are building. The usual cost is $125 each way. There is just one flight down and one back on each weekday. Each takes 30-40 minutes. It's okay to leave your cellphone on with Sounds Air - Mr Daken said it only causes a little bit of annoying static. The company does not like to cancel flights. Often it will wait until weather clears, sometimes hours later, and fly then. The morning flight leaves Wanganui at 6.45am and the evening one gets back at 6.40pm, allowing people to spend a nine-to-five working day in the capital. The plane is a Cessna 208 Caravan, which seats 11 people plus the pilot. It is smaller and more compact than the Air New Zealand Beech 1900Ds that fly to and from Auckland. It flies at the same height as them. Flying to Wellington on Monday morning, it was nearly full. Two people were going to Picton, three to Blenheim and one onward to Invercargill. One man was heading for the Hutt Hospital for an appointment, one was returning to Wellington after a weekend wedding and one was staying there all week for work. Pilot Andrew Daken spends a night in Wanganui at Anndion Lodge several times a week. "Everyone is so warm and welcoming in Wanganui. "I really enjoy going up there," he said. He stood behind a desk to check us in, saw us into the plane and told us about safety. Caravans have such safe engines that only one pilot is needed and they have all the safety gear of a bigger plane. Morning flights like Monday's, with a pink, cream and crimson sunrise, are Mr Daken's favourites. Taking off from Wanganui, we could see the lights of early cars heading down Heads Rd for work. The plane's instrument panel stretched across the cabin and the co-pilot steering wheel in front of me moved in sync with the pilot's. Mr Daken often lets people sit up the front with him but he has to choose the right people. "I thought I could trust you. If not, I could overpower you," he said. Partway down the coast it was dawn, and air traffic control switched from Ohakea to Wellington. The Marlborough Sounds emerged as a blue line of hills, with tiny lights in their folds marking Picton and Blenheim. Mr Daken talked about his flying career as we hummed down the coast. He has been with Sounds Air for six months and flew in Australia's Northern Territory for six years before that. He said flying is a small industry and everyone knows someone who has had a serious accident. A pilot must always be aware of where the plane can land if something goes wrong. On a Wellington-Wanganui flight it would be a long, bare stretch of beach. Landing was the most challenging part of flying, he said, but also the most enjoyable. Once in the air on autopilot, a Cessna Caravan basically flies itself. "They say a pilot's life is 99 per cent boredom and 1 per cent sheer terror," he said with a smile. From the air, Wellington looked like a craggy, knobbly cake with fairy lights. The air traffic controller there calls Mr Daken "Mindy" - a joke - because he has an Australian accent. Gazing straight down the runway out the front window during landing was an experience. All that city and bay coming towards me. Once landed, Mr Daken was flying on to Picton, then having a rest break at home in Wellington and flying back to Wanganui in the evening. The little Sounds Air terminal is off to the side of Wellington Airport. Outside the big building and to the right is the Airport Flyer bus stop, with buses to Wellington and the Hutt Valley leaving every 10 minutes. Getting to the central city costs $9. The flight back in the evening was clearer, with views of two mountains. There was only one other passenger on board, a Christchurch man going to a funeral.

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