As I headed off to write a story about a couple of locals who import planes from the States and sell them locally and as overseas, I hoped at best, to get a great story and a ‘sit’ in a plane. But as I arrived at John Hood’s Mid Canterbury property, John’s first question was, “Have you got time to fly to Timaru?” Well, I can tell you it took all of 15 seconds to say “YES!” and we were off!
One minute from the house, John opened his redesigned hanger doors and pulled out his black Highlander aeroplane. It’s a bit of a hike up into the cockpit but once there you feel like you are in a cocoon. John strapped me in and fitted me with a set of headphones. After the safety checks were complete, we lined up on a small shingle track in front of the hangar and we were off. It was a fast take off being that the engine is turbo charged, and thanks to that power, can climb quickly. Our take-off was very smooth and quiet.
The day was magic, with very clear views from the mountains to the sea, and the trip took just over 14 minutes with a tail wind at a speed of approximately 170km per hr. We landed on the grass strip at Timaru Airport – once again a flat landing with quick stopping. (None of that hard pull on the seat belts like when you come into land on a big plane).
Grant Coldicott, John’s business partner was waiting for us with the other model they import, the Just Aircraft SUPER STOL (STOL meaning short take-off and landing). So now it was time to find out more about these two and why they had chosen to start a business importing these small planes.
“This is a great hobby for both of us as we have spent many years in the backcountry and Grant comes from a flying family,” says John.
“At first, importing the factory built planes was done through the manufacturing company Just Aircraft LLC, in America, but now we promote a New Zealand build and have set up a company, Just Aircraft NZ Limited. This means we are responsible for the quality control required for our customers and can have the aircraft built to suit the needs of individuals,’” says Grant. “These aircraft are well suited to NZ’s back country. They are also becoming popular in Alaska and the Australian outback. We’ve just sent two aircraft over to Aussie,” he continues.
“We started importing the complete planes from the States four years ago, but we found that they didn’t quite have the quality finish required by our clients, so now they come in a container and we have them put together at our service supplier’s base at Taieri Airport in Dunedin. The build takes about 800 hours. They are double-checked by both of us, plus there is 10 hours of test flying undertaken before they can be signed off and handed over to customers,” he says. “Flying a new machine for the first time is a bit nerve-wracking. Each new owner is type-rated to the aircraft before handing it over.” Grant has his test pilot and instructor’s licence, so it works really well.
The aircraft are designed with strength and safety in mind and are made with a chrome molybdenum welded steel airframe which is the strongest steel you can get. Everything is triangular, once again creating a strong platform for peace of mind. The design is to provide ultimate strength to distribute energy in the event of a mishap. They are designed so that in an emergency they can be put straight down. That is, straight down on the landing gear, and you walk away.
The engine is a turbo charged Rotax 914 developing 115hp, giving plenty of power when required. The motors do 2000 hours before being overhauled, as well as the usual regular maintenance checks and oil changes etc.
The aircraft are great for getting around places reasonably quickly. “A trip to Kaikoura a couple of weeks ago took 1hr 42 min at about 150km per hr in a straight line,” adds John.
“We use a 3 blade prop made of carbon fibre which comes from Kiev in the Ukraine, and the pitch is adjustable from the ground. It is the best all round prop for cruising and, really importantly, getting off the ground,” he says with a smile.
The tyres are quite big and look bouncy. “Do they wear out?” I ask. “They never wear out, they are Alaskan bush tyres with an internal bladder and cost around $4k,” says John. Fully loaded the plane weighs approximately 650kg.
Since Christmas the pair have imported seven planes. Big interest from Australia has seen two go to Caloundra in Queensland to be built. Two more are being built in Dunedin, two have gone to the North Island and one has gone to Wanaka. They say they are getting more enquiries all the time as people seek more freedom. “We really love these planes because they are strong and sturdy and designed for the back country. They are so robust we can land on river beds and require minimum flat country to put them down, which is where we like to be when we have any time off. We’re not quite as fit as we used to be so it beats walking. I can be out the backcountry first thing in the morning for a fish and back in time for work by 9am. They are really quiet so we can come round a bluff and there will be a thar or a stag with some hinds and we have just snuck in on them, its magic. There’s nothing like boiling a billy, eating an apple and that fresh smell of the outback to make your day,” say Grant and John.
“It’s been great to introduce people with disabilities and retired people to the outback, some of whom have hunted as youth’s and others who have never had the opportunity to go into the back country”, John says.
I asked if they’ve had any passengers unwell in the plane, “I once had an elderly guy reach for a sick bag and we don’t carry any so he used his helmet” Grant laughs.
Both Grant and John acknowledge, the one thing you have to have is respect for the plane and where you are taking it. “We always work on the theory we NEVER have to be back at a certain time of day as that is the key, AND knowing when to turn back will keep you alive.”
Of course boys will be boys, and they usually take two planes on an excursion, it’s so much more fun, and there’s no fighting over the controls. “We make an adventure of it, and, if we have to leave one plane behind then we just catch a ride with the other. We have even turned the plane into a jet boat on one occasion. We get into some really remote areas and that’s where we really love to fly; places like the Kaipo and Dusky Sound in Fiordland; places that can take hours or days to get into by car or boat and we can be there in within a couple of hours. When we go we can take enough food and supplies in the back for a week.”
Of course you can’t defeat the law of physics, so picking when and where to fly is paramount to keeping safe. “It’s far better flying in the winter when the air molecules are closer together than the summer and that is why we do most of our flying in the autumn and winter.”
“For the New Zealand backcountry we need good vertical lift. When we come around a bluff we need to know we can get up over a tree or the next bluff and these machines certainly do that.”
John frequently uses his plane for going over the farm checking on feed and stock.
“We fly for fun. It’s a hobby, it keeps us safe with this attitude and makes it fun for our families to enjoy,” says John. John also loves taking his grandson with him.
John and Grant’s philosophy is:
There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots!!!!!