It’s hard to describe the thrill of being at the controls of an 80-tonne jet airliner, it is such an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind experience. But it’s all tied up in that old phrase, the romance of flying. Flight Experience is the only jet airliner simulator in the central North Island, providing a mock-up of the latest version of the Boeing 737.
There’s the same ‘we’re off’ frisson of excitement that you feel just prior to take-off in any commercial jet as a passenger, but this time you are in the pilot seat, as you settle in and begin the same checklist procedures as a real pilot.Fortunately, as you ease the throttle controls forward to take off, you’re not on your own; you’re guided by an experienced instructor (All ‘real life’ professional pilots).
The terrain out the window (going by in ‘real time’) is accurate because it’s been produced from satellite images - so that what you see out the curved screen above your instrument panel, is a convincing version of real scenery.
Flight Experience’s genial Operations Manager, Grayson Ottaway, says the company began with a "group of guys in a garage in Christchurch, as typically happens with Kiwi ingenuity," and has since turned into a business that is across New Zealand and will soon enter Australia, and the U.K.
The ‘sim’ as its affectionately known, is accurate in its cockpit layout and size, based on the latest model Boeing 737-800, as used by Pacific Blue for example, flying between New Zealand and Australia.
"It is an accurate flying experience: you have the chance to control the airplane, be part of flight planning, the navigation of the plane and all the controls for different things; fuel, hydraulics, cabin pressure, etcetera."
"It’s an immersive experience," Grayson Ottaway adds, "in that you are an airline pilot for the time with us in the simulator."
Who are the customers? Generally the clientele has been "male-weighted," with the gift vouchers the company sells bought by - or for - grandfathers, fathers, sons and husbands. But a surprising number of women have also bought vouchers. Although Ottaway notes that half of the instructors at the local flying school are females – including the chief flying instructor. "The youngest person we’ve had is 12 (years old) and the oldest 93 – an ex-World War Two pilot who promptly asked if he could ‘flip it on its lid’…he wanted to go and attack the Hun!"
Flight packages begin with the Introductory experience, a half hour flight around Tauranga City Airport described as a ‘taste’ of the sim, and include a longer ‘City to City’ flight from anywhere in the country. Instructors tend to stick around Tauranga with its familiar scenery, Ottaway explains, but other flights could be say, Tauranga-Hamilton-Auckland, Mount Cook to Queenstown, or Wellington to Woodburne and return. This writer found the intro flight had plenty bang for your buck: with the slightly scary elation of a bumpy landing at Tauranga airport in a cross wind, and the free-as-a-gannet feeling of banking into a big turn over the Bay of Plenty coast.
Packages cost from $95, ($15 extra for a real-time video showing you at the controls) for the introductory flight, through to a 2-hour ‘Ultimate’ experience (You needn’t go hungry – partly or fully-catered options). Personalised packages are also available.
If you doubt how authentic the experience is, note that this machine is used for training real pilots as well. The sim is used as a flight training device by local flying school Bay Flight, and a professional pilot training course is on the way. Grayson Ottaway says their future plans include ‘fear of flying’ courses, because if you’re scared if flying, sitting up front in the pilot’s seat is a "great" way to beat it. A 180 degree wrap-around screen is also part of their plans.
Next door to Flight Experience in Jean Batten Drive at the Airport, is Mount Maunganui's superb home-grown aviation museum, Classic Flyers NZ, where classic aircraft ‘still take to the skies.’ No stuffy affair, the museum focuses on keeping as many exhibits ‘operational’ as possible. You can even go for a fly in old beauties like the Boeing Stearman World War II open-cockpit bi-plane, ex Royal New Zealand Air Force ‘Airtrainer’ or a Korean War era ‘M*A*S*H’ chopper.
The museum’s big hangar complex combines static displays with a viewing area so visitors can watch the classic aircraft roar into life. In addition, the museum has thousands of pieces of memorabilia on show, from flying suits and helmets to vintage motorbikes.
Winner of the 2006 ‘People’s Choice’ tourism award, Classic Flyers also has displays on early local flyers like Hilda Hewlett, an early founder of the Tauranga Aero Club and airfield. The museum has its own aviation-themed café and bar - AvGas. Run with the help of aviation-crazy volunteers, it’s a comparative bargain at $10 adult entry, children (5-15 years old) & seniors $5, family concession (2 adults, 3 children) $25. Open daily from 10 to 4 pm daily, it’s a ‘don’t miss’ for visitors to the Bay – and locals alike.