Flying in the "Around New Zealand" 2004 Air Race
By Mardell Haskins, Las Vegas Valley Chapter and Gretchen Jahn, Colorado Chapter
International Women Pilots / 99 NEWS Magazine
The Around New Zealand Air Race was a flying tour rather than a race. Every day was an adventure and a wonderful way to see New Zealand (or any other country for that matter). The race was an international event, including five teams from Australia, four from the U.S., three from England, one from Switzerland and one from Hong Kong, with a lone German and Frenchman who were both teamed with New Zealanders.
The mix of airplanes in the race varied substantially from a two-place Piper Pacer that flew a swift 80 mph, to a New Zealand Air Force entry flying a Beech King Air at 400 mph. There was just about everything in between, including a helicopter piloted by a female team. There were 155 pilots and a dozen members of the race committee in six chase planes that also accompanied the racers.
Altogether, there were four emergency landings and numerous breakdowns, including our sightseeing boat during a cruising tour of Milford Sound. Sixty-two airplanes were registered, 60 started and 57 finished.
In the true sprit of pilots around the world, when Team 15 (Mardell Haskins and Danielle Boven) made the first emergency landing of the race the day before registrations, Team 21 and Team 59 came to their rescue. Mardell Haskins (Las Vegas Valley 99) went with Gretchen Jahn (Denver 99) and husband Karl Sutterfield, while Danielle Boven (New Zealand 99, an American married to a New Zealander) teamed up with Denise Waters (99 member at large) and her partner Martin Pine.
When Team 42 was forced to land on the beach, the airplane in front of them – that had an engineer (mechanic) on board – turned around, landed and gave them assistance. On another occasion, local pilots split their teams up and rode with the inexperienced teams to help them fly through the narrow, rugged, glacier mountain canyons. In a show of the true spirit of race pilots around the world, when yet another team had mechanical problems on the next to last day of the race, they arrived at the finish airport on bicycles!
The race was not flown like the typical race in the U.S. There were two categories: speed and precision, and you could fly either one. All the airplanes flew at the same time, on the same leg, to the same place. Each team had a set starting sequence that was followed the entire race. There were16 legs, flown over eight days (two legs per day), with four rest days scheduled every third day. There were also three pre-race days, three post-race days and two travel days needed just to take care of necessary logistics and requirements.
The racecourse was over 3,000 miles long, with the entire group flying over 180,000 air miles. It was a very long race requiring three weeks to complete.
The race covered most of both islands. Each leg consisted of a series of checkpoints, with direction and altitude changes at each one. After the briefing before each leg, we were given a set of questions to answer at each check point, which helped to verify that we actually got there. Many checkpoints were lighthouses (New Zealand has a lot of coastline, in fact more than the U.S.), but some were tiny towns in the middle of the bush.
Since some legs were as short as 14 NM, things got very busy trying to locate checkpoints in unfamiliar country, to fly by at the correct altitude and heading, to answer the questions, to take the time and to head off in a new direction, all at the top speed a Cessna 182 or Piper Warrior could muster. It took three people to do all this, and we were glad that we had three on our teams. As Americans we had an extra handicap in that we needed interpretation of New Zealand slang to understand the questions and multiple choice answers (What is a flash bach anyway?) Learning how to pronounce Maori names over the radio was equally daunting and entertaining, such as Whenuapai (Fen oo a pie).
The weather was a major factor as it was constantly changing, by the hour, usually for the worse, requiring adjustments to almost every one of the 16 legs. Mixed with the awesome views were some scary moments flying up narrow glacier canyons. This was especially true when Arthur’s Pass got snowed in and the planes were flying in both directions up the valley on the south side and then back down on the north side when they had to turn around and come back. This resulted in an unexpected night’s stay in Hokitita and missing a banquet at Wigram, AFB, in Christchurch.
Navigating was very difficult, due mostly to the newly issued NZ charts and lack of navaids. We were not allowed to use a GPS, and the very few New Zealand VORs were no help. The charts had numerous errors and no topographical definition, among other things, and were a constant source of aggravation. To put it mildly, the charts were terrible!
The camaraderie and spirit among the race teams was memorable. Team 13, the Borneo Pirates, came dressed as pirates, complete with eye patches, hook hands and a parrot. We had the Yahoos, Team 61, in pink tails, the Southern Men, No.19, in leather Aussie hats, and the Blues Brothers in shades. Each team had a team name and developed their own style and team spirit. We were The Coriolis Force, and Denise, Danielle and Martin were Team DXL.
The logistics of the race to transport, feed, and shelter almost 200 people and to fuel 66 aircraft over 4,800 kilometers were substantial and no small endeavor.
A travel agent accompanied the race, making sure that food, lodging, transportation and sightseeing tours ran as planned. Lunch and dinners were provided by local airport aero clubs and were quite good.
The race was well organized and ran very smoothly. Race Director was 49½ Mat Wakelin, and New Zealand 99 Dee Bond Wakelin was Handicap and Safety Chairman. Along with their Race “Bored,” they did an excellent job of planning and running the race.
Gretchen and Mardell agreed that this was the hardest race they have ever flown. New Zealand is stunningly beautiful, very diverse, very dramatic and quite awesome. It met all our expectations and was a flight of a lifetime!