On 21 January 1889, Dunedin citizens watched open-mouthed as an American ‘aerialist’ calling himself ‘Professor Baldwin’ drifted overhead in a yellow oiled-silk balloon inflated by coal gas. This flight, the first of its kind in New Zealand, foreshadowed displays by other touring American balloonists, including Miss Millie Viola, ‘Professor Jackson’, Miss Leila Adair, and ‘Professor Barnes’. Their performances began with the hazardous process of filling the balloon with hot air, often featured acrobatic stunts performed on a trapeze suspended under the balloon, and ended with a death-defying parachute descent.
American balloonist Leila Adair, billed as ‘The Aerial Queen’, toured New Zealand in 1894. Her ascents were noted for mishaps. At Auckland her balloon was blown out over the Rangitoto Channel, while in Hamilton it burst during a spectacular descent. A children’s nursery rhyme lingered for years after her visit:
Leila Adair went up in the air,
Her balloon came down and left her there.
Some intrepid New Zealanders were keen to emulate these feats. The first New Zealand-born balloonist, David Mahoney (‘Captain Charles Lorraine’), drowned on 2 November 1899 when he was caught out by a south-west change and his balloon ditched in the sea outside Lyttelton Harbour. Other early New Zealand balloonists included Bob Murie and Noah Ezra Jonassen, ‘The Aerial King’.
The advent of powered flight soon overshadowed ballooning, but from the 1960s nylon fabrics and butane burners helped revive the sport in New Zealand. During the 1970s balloons were flown across Cook Strait and over Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Southern Alps for the first time.
Ballooning is still a vivid spectacle, but much safer. The brightly coloured hot-air balloons can be four to nine storeys high, and often take fantastic shapes such as giant animals and birds, buildings or cartoon characters. They are fuelled by liquid propane or LPG carried in canisters: when the valves are opened, the gas is ignited by a burner under the envelope of the balloon. The hot air inside the envelope is lighter than the cold air outside it, causing the balloon to rise.
To inflate a balloon, the envelope is stretched along the ground and attached to the basket, which is lying on its side. A petrol-powered fan blows air into the envelope and a burner is turned on, heating the air and causing the balloon to stand upright.
Balloons can remain in the air for about two hours, depending on how much fuel they carry. Although they cannot be steered, the pilot can control the gas flow to descend or ascend and take advantage of wind currents. Once in flight, a balloon travels at the speed of the wind around it, so it is best to fly in light winds. Ground crew drive below the balloon to help it land and return it to its base.
The sport of ballooning in New Zealand is governed by Civil Aviation Authority regulations, and local clubs are co-ordinated by the Balloon Aviation Association of New Zealand, established in 1990. In 2020 a licence was required to pilot a balloon which carried passengers.
The annual Balloons over Waikato festival started in 1988, the Wairarapa International Balloon Fiesta has been a regular event since 1999, and in 2005 Levin hosted a fiesta. Hawke’s Bay, Canterbury and Queenstown are also popular ballooning regions. Increasing numbers of tourists are taking to the air in balloons operated by adventure tourism companies.
On 7 January 2012, a hot-air balloon on a scenic flight from Carterton struck a high-voltage power line while the pilot was attempting to land. All 11 people on board died in the resulting fire and crash.
The advent of powered flight in the early 20th century was greeted with excitement by many New Zealanders. Enthusiasts set about building aircraft – of their own design, or from imported plans. Experimental flights were made, clubs were formed, and would-be pilots learned to fly at the New Zealand Flying School in Auckland and the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company in Christchurch during and after the First World War.
Regional aero clubs were founded from the late 1920s, and in 1930 they were affiliated through the New Zealand Aero Club, later known as the Royal New Zealand Aero Club. The clubs purchased training aircraft, established aerodromes and taught men, and a few women, to fly. From the 1930s they received government funding to train pilots for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Many of these men flew with distinction during the Second World War.
A wartime ban on private flying was lifted in 1946, but many of the aero clubs struggled to cover costs. Between 1955 and 1962 they received government subsidies, which enabled them to recover financially and purchase new aircraft. Despite economic downturns, fuel shortages, and changes in aviation regulations during the 1970s and 1980s, most aero clubs have survived and are flourishing.
The Royal New Zealand Aero Club (RNZAC) represents New Zealand at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world organisation for promoting non-commercial aviation and air sports; it also administers FAI awards in New Zealand. In addition to networking and lobbying, the RNZAC operates a pilot proficiency scheme and runs competitions for skills such as navigation, landing, aerobatics and formation flying.
Training pilots is still a key role of aero clubs, although there are also private air schools. After the exhilarating first solo flight, learners work towards their private pilot’s licence and ratings for various types of flying, including night flying, formation flying and aerobatics. Some go on to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence or instructor ratings, but for many, flying remains purely recreational.
Although aviation tends to be male-dominated, some women trained as pilots from the 1920s, and several were members of the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. In 1960 the New Zealand Airwomen’s Association (now the New Zealand Association of Women in Aviation) was formed to encourage women interested in powered flight, gliding and parachute jumping. Aviator Jean Batten was its patron. In 2020 the organisation had about 200 members.
The RNZAC operates a programme called Young Eagles which gives young people a taste of flying and the chance to win training scholarships. The Scout Association of New Zealand has since 1967 held the annual Walsh Memorial Scout Flying School for young people.
The RNZAC organises a national rally for aero-club members. Around New Zealand Air Races in 1991 and 2004 attracted entrants from throughout the world.
Swooping high above the earth in an unpowered aircraft allows a different perspective on clouds, birds and the landscape. Gliders, also known as sailplanes, are usually towed by a powered aircraft until they gain sufficient altitude to fly for several hours using favourable air currents, either close to the home airfield or cross-country.
New Zealand’s history of gliding (or soaring, as it is sometimes called) is as old as that of powered flight. In December 1911, 18-year-old George Bolt flew a glider of his own design and construction from the Cashmere Hills above Christchurch. In March 1913 he made a record flight of 1,224 feet (373 metres) above Hagley Park.
Gliding gained popularity in the late 1920s. By 1930 there were a few clubs, and in 1931 a gliding association was formed. Gliding appealed as a cheap way of achieving flight, and many early gliders were home-built. Launched by being towed behind a vehicle or pushed off a hill, they tended to make short flights at low altitude. In 1947 the establishment of the New Zealand Gliding Association led to a greater emphasis on safety.
The national association, Gliding New Zealand, controls the sport by setting standards and managing the training of pilots, instructors, engineers and tow pilots. It also organises contests, selects teams for world competitions, and represents New Zealand on the International Gliding Commission.
The North Otago township of Ōmarama can claim to be the gliding capital of New Zealand. Ringed by mountains, the Ōmarama basin has the three main types of rising air currents used by glider pilots – thermals, hill lift and standing waves. Fans visit from around the globe, and the 1995 world gliding championships were held there.
Trial flights and training are offered by regional gliding clubs and commercial operators catering for tourists. Certification as a ‘qualified glider pilot’ is equivalent to the private pilot’s licence for powered aircraft. Flying achievements for distance, height and duration are recognised by international awards known as badges, managed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
There are regional, national and international contests which test flying skill, judgement and understanding of weather conditions. In the 1960s New Zealand glider pilots began competing internationally. New Zealanders Ray Lynskey (1995) and John Coutts (2003) have been world champions. World records for height, distance and speed in various categories have been set in New Zealand.
The blast of slipstream air on your face as you lean out the aircraft door, the giddy plunge into space, the forces tearing at your suit and goggles as you free-fall at around 200 kilometres an hour, and then the sense of relief as the parachute jerks open and awe as you see the world in miniature beneath you – these are some of the sensations that skydivers experience.
New Zealand parachuting dates back to the late 19th century, when balloonists would end their aerial displays with a jump. In February 1922 Australian Albert Eastwood made the first jump in New Zealand from an aeroplane, and in the 1930s a succession of parachutists performed at air pageants. But parachuting did not develop as a sport for another two decades: the Auckland Parachute Club led the way from 1953, and in 1955 the New Zealand Parachute Federation was formed.
During the economic depression of the early 1930s, some men made parachute jumps in a desperate attempt to make money. A jump by George Sellars at Palmerston North in 1936 was described as follows:
‘Drifting like mad, he’d thumped onto the tarmac … to fall on his side and then, like a child’s spent top, to roll over and over until his billowing chute fouled something and stopped dragging him along. Dazed, cut and bruised, Sellars had later gone along the fenceline with a tin to beg a handout from the crowd of at least five hundred. He’d collected exactly 6/10d [worth about $40 in 2020]’. 1
Skydiving often involves performing acrobatics in free fall before activating the parachute. It became established in the 1960s and 1970s. New altitude records were set, and groups would make descents in a cluster or in star formation. For the first time New Zealanders took part in international competitions.
The New Zealand Parachute Federation remains the governing body for the sport, setting rules and overseeing training and safety standards. Learners work towards obtaining an ‘A’ licence in skydiving. They can then jump solo from altitudes of 2,700–4,600 metres into defined ‘drop zones’. In the early 21st century the biggest skydive event in New Zealand was the annual Good Vibes Boogie held at Motueka, usually in August.
Skydiving companies belonging to the New Zealand Parachute Industry Association offer skydiving for tourists, film-makers and photographers, companies on team-building exercises, and adventurous individuals. Novices can experience the adrenaline rush of free fall by tandem jumping, harnessed to an instructor. These companies also provide training towards skydiving qualifications. The Diploma in Commercial Skydiving opens up opportunities for employment as a parachute packer, free-fall camera operator, jumpmaster or instructor, or tandem master.
Hang gliding and paragliding provide the simplest introduction to non-powered flying. Attached to a wing by a harness, the pilot uses air currents to stay aloft, and body weight or manual controls to change direction. The ability to achieve and sustain flight through your own efforts is one of the greatest rewards of these two sports.
Although stories of flights in kite-like contraptions date back many centuries, the modern hang glider was invented in 1947 by aeronautical engineer Francis Rogallo, who experimented with flexible wings that would respond to the wind. Hang gliding began in New Zealand in 1972, when American pilot Jeff Jobe made demonstration flights in the Aoraki/Mt Cook area. It quickly became popular, but there was a spate of fatal accidents. With the establishment of the New Zealand Hang Gliding Association in 1974, safety regulations for the sport were formulated, and a pilot rating system was introduced in 1976. The 1977 Oscar-nominated documentary Off the edge, set in the Southern Alps, encouraged more people to try the sport.
Early hang glider pilots attempted some risky but spectacular stunts. In September 1973 Gerald Nairn, from Wairoa, flew both over and under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, to the consternation of civil aviation authorities.
The modern hang glider frame is constructed from aluminium with wings of synthetic fabric, has a wing span of about 9.7 metres and weighs between 22 and 32 kilograms. The pilot is suspended from the glider in a harness at its centre of gravity. By shifting weight from side to side he or she can bank and turn the craft; leaning forwards makes it descend; leaning backwards makes it climb. Hang gliders are usually launched from hills or cliffs. Most flying sites are managed by local hang-gliding clubs.
Paragliders, also known as parapentes, differ from hang gliders in that they consist of a simple wing inflated by the air that enters its gills during the launch. Paragliders do not have a rigid frame; the pilot sits in a harness with a back protector. This is suspended from the wing by four or five sets of lines, the last of which, the brake lines, are attached to handles. The direction of the glider is controlled by pulling on the brake handles.
Pilots usually launch the paraglider by running down a gentle slope, which inflates the wing. Weighing only 13 to 14 kilograms, paragliders are more portable than hang gliders, and can be carried up and flown from high mountains. Paragliders travel more slowly than hang gliders and are easier to fly.
Paragliders became popular in Europe in the mid-1980s. A New Zealand paragliding pioneer was the mountaineer Rob Hall, who made experimental flights from the Port Hills near Christchurch, and then from Mt Hutt and peaks near the Hermitage Hotel. In December 1986 he became the first person to fly a paraglider from the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The New Zealand Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association is now the national regulatory body for both sports, co-ordinating the activities of affiliated clubs, and organising competitions and festivals. Hang glider and paraglider pilots do not require a licence but must be members of the association, which gives pilots ratings from beginner through to instructor and tandem.
Microlights are extremely light aircraft powered by lightweight motors. They are tiny and slow-flying compared to the planes operated by aero clubs, or to ultralights (home-made aircraft). They first appeared in New Zealand in the early 1980s. Because they could take off from and land in paddocks, they were soon being used for weed spraying and topdressing on farms, beach surveillance and other practical purposes, as well as pleasure flying.
A microlight pilot’s love of mushrooms sparked a search and rescue operation one evening at Pāuatahanui, near Porirua. After reports of a microlight crashing in a field, a rescue helicopter was sent out. It turned out that the pilot had deliberately landed in the field and was calmly gathering mushrooms.
Microlights appeal because they are cheap – they can be home-built from plans – and relatively easy to fly. They are categorised as one- or two-place machines – capable of carrying the pilot only, or the pilot and a passenger. Their variety is dazzling and includes weight-shift controlled craft like motorised hang gliders, stick-and-rudder aeroplanes, gyrocopters and helicopters, and powered parachutes or paragliders.
A Microlight Aircraft Association was established in New Zealand in 1981. Today the Recreational Aircraft Association of New Zealand administers the microlight licensing system and co-ordinates regional microlight associations and events. Pilots progress through novice, intermediate and advanced licences before they are considered fully competent, and a passenger rating is required to operate two-place microlights.
Another sport that has become popular in New Zealand since the 1990s is paramotoring – essentially motorised paragliding. The pilot wears a motor at the back of his or her harness to achieve and maintain altitude. Once airborne, the pilot can switch off the motor and soar as if paragliding. Paramotoring makes it possible to fly in places and conditions not suitable for paragliding. It is governed by the Recreational Aircraft Association. A New Zealand paramotoring rally was held in February 2005.
‘Who can resist the throb of a Harvard or the sheer romance of a Tiger Moth, the roar of a Mustang or the rush of a jet?’ 1 With these words an enthusiast sums up the appeal of researching, restoring and flying vintage aircraft. The formation of the Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand in 1958 was a rallying call to those fascinated by aviation history and particular types of aircraft. The society’s regular research publications sparked wider interest. The establishment in 1964 of the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, with its displays of aircraft associated with pioneer aviators such as Richard Pearse and Jean Batten, raised awareness of New Zealand’s aviation heritage. So did exhibitions at other museums around the country.
The New Zealand Sport and Vintage Aviation Society was established in 1974 because of concern that many notable old aircraft were disappearing. In 1978 the society held its first air pageant, the forerunner of the biennial air show Wings Over Wairarapa. Based at Hood Aerodrome at Masterton, the society now has a collection of vintage aircraft in flying condition, and runs the George Hood Museum of Aviation and Transport.
The sale of a privately owned Mustang P-1 to an overseas buyer, despite an offer from a local group, prompted the formation of the New Zealand Warbirds Association in 1978. Gradually purchasing former service aeroplanes, particularly those used by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the association acquired a hangar and clubrooms in Auckland. It now operates over 60 aircraft, which are owned by syndicates of members. The skills required to fly older aircraft are specialised, but members with private pilot’s licences can study to obtain the necessary ratings.
The association is involved with the biennial Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow. Started by aviation entrepreneur Sir Tim Wallis in 1988, the show has become the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, attracting crowds in the tens of thousands at Easter in even-numbered years.
The fate of two 1916 Boeing seaplanes that once flew New Zealand skies has long puzzled aviation historians. The first two planes built by Boeing, Bluebird and Mallard, were imported by the Auckland-based New Zealand Flying School. After the school closed they were rumoured to be stored in old defence tunnels under Auckland’s North Head, but investigation disproved this theory. If found, the planes would have exceptional historical and monetary value.
Clubs dedicated to the preservation and flying of vintage aircraft include regional groups such as the Gisborne Aviation Preservation Society, and societies focused on particular types of aircraft such as the Tiger Moth Club of New Zealand. Vintage Kiwi is the association for those interested in classic and vintage gliders. Commercial companies also restore and display old aircraft and offer flights to tourists. Air shows and rallies enable the public to see aviation history in action.
Annabel, Ross, ed. Hang gliding in New Zealand. Wellington: INL Print, 1976.
Ewing, Ross, and Ross Macpherson. The history of New Zealand aviation. Auckland: Heinemann, 1986.
Morris, Gerard S. Warbirds over Wanaka: the story of New Zealand’s premier airshow. Auckland: Reed, 1994.