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Ready to fly .. North Otago Aero Club captain Sven Thelning at Oamaru Airport with the club's Cessna 172.

How is the air up there? Just ask members of the North Otago Aero Club. In the latest instalment in our Clubbing It series, Daniel Birchfield takes to the skies.

It is possible more change has been seen over the past few months at the North Otago Aero Club than in any year since the club was formed in the 1950s.

The club has enlisted a new flight instructor, Joseph Topping, leased a second aircraft, and started a new series of courses to prepare pupils for theory exams so they can sit their licences.

A scheme is also being trialled where sharemilker and club member Hayden Williams, who has a farm near the airport north of Oamaru, hires and supports a student pilot as a farm worker to help them obtain their pilot’s licence debt-free, by working and training at the same time.

As well as all that, the club’s rooms have been given a spruce up.
North Otago Aero Club captain Sven Thelning, the club’s former instructor, said it was an exciting time to be involved with the club.

He was particularly excited about the club’s latest acquisition, a two-seater Tecnam Sierra microlight, to complement a Cessna 172.

New acquisition .. The club recently leased a Tecnam Sierra microlight for use by its members.

Mr Thelning said it meant the club could offer both microlight and full private commercial licences at subsidised rates for members.

“It will be used for anyone who wants to do microlight training and, equally, for people that have got their full pilot’s licence that want to try something different or for a cheaper option, if they don’t have passengers.”

The addition of the second plane, which is being leased, has led to a boost in the number of flying hours at the club.

“It’s been just as popular as the other plane. That’s why our hours have doubled. The hours started as pretty standard .. but now it’s about 20 to 30 hours a month on average.”

The plan now is to introduce a new group to the art of piloting.

The club, formed in 1956, last week held the first in a series of night courses designed to prepare students for the six theory exams they must sit, covering the topics of flight radio, aircraft technical knowledge, navigation, meteorology, human factors and law.

The courses are free, but students must buy all of the books and other materials required.

Mr Thelning said about eight people had signed up for the classes, held at the Excelsior Sports Club rooms each Thursday.
HoldingĀ a pilot’s licence could lead to several career options, Mr Thelning said.

“Aviation is such a massive industry, with some real variation. You could be flying tours down in Milford Sound, dropping parachutes or working around farms. Quite a lot of people who are doing that kind of thing were students here.

Aerial view .. Oamaru and its harbour.

“The level of the exams, I would say, would be the equivalent to the fifth form (year 11). They are all directly related to what you need to know.

“If you’re interested in planes, you’ll like the courses. You all start flying at the same time, too, so it gives you the motivation to crack on with the theory.”

After students have sat the exams, they do between 50 and 60 hours of flight time before they go up with an examiner to complete their final flying test.

A student is then qualified to fly the plane in which the final test was conducted.

“Then you can go out and get qualified in anything you like,” Mr Thelning said.

The club, which offers charter flights to locations around the South Island, recently held a “fly-in”, which attracted about 20 pilots and their aircraft.

Mr Thelning said a highlight for him and many other pilots was the chance to see a BAC 167 Strikemaster aircraft in action.

“It was a British plane that was sold to the Saudi air force, who used it for training. When it was retired, it went back to England, which is where this bloke bought it from.

“It gave us a good, close-up look at a jet and he explained how it all worked and the challenges of maintaining such an aircraft and actually flying it.”

In recent times, about 30 of the club’s 50 members have helped upgrade the club’s rooms.

The club had also stepped up its promotional activities to generate interest, which Mr Thelning said was starting to pay off.

“I think we just need it out there a bit more. The Facebook page has been quite a good success and we invite the general public along when we have trips and things like that.”

The club often has flight days to locations around the lower South Island.

Oamaru Airport is owned by the Waitaki District Council and its operations are overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand.

Several carriers have attempted to base commercial services from the airport over the years. The most recent was in June 2014, when Mainland Air started a service between Oamaru and Christchurch. However, it only lasted until late August, before the company pulled out due to low passenger numbers.

It was the fourth time since 1990 a carrier had attempted and ceased services from the airport, following in the footsteps of Air New Zealand, Air Nelson and Eagle Airways.

Landmark .. A view of the Waitaki River from the window of the North Otago Aero Club’s Cessna 172. PHOTOS: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD