I don’t know about your experience, but to me it always seems that the world of aviation is incredibly small. You might meet one person at one place and realize that you have mutual friends somewhere entirely different, all linked through the passion of flight. Pretty amazing how one occasion can lead to another, can lead to another, can lead to another with completely fortuitous outcomes. Rather like the aviation equivalent of “for the want of a nail” cascade of events.
Eleven years ago, I broke my leg. Or, rather, I had it broken for me. Regardless, it was miserable. For an extended period of time I was hobbling around on crutches and couldn’t do much, let alone fly, because I couldn’t get my leg into an airplane. Not one to totally leave aviation alone, I took the opportunity to go to a small local airport for a casual fly-in. While crutching across the ramp in the Colorado summertime heat, I took a break huffing and puffing in the shade of the wing of a biplane. When I caught my breath, I started chatting with the couple who owned it. It turned out that we had some professional friends in common; later I ran into them again at other events and ultimately we became great friends.
Fast forward a few years and they had a dream: to fly in New Zealand. There was an international air safari coming up in New Zealand that they really wanted to take part in and were hoping to defray some of the cost and share the adventure with friends. So, guest of a weird twist of fate, I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand and spend two weeks flying in a large figure eight around the North and South Islands. They went out a few weeks before and got their New Zealand pilot licenses, and together we all rented a Cessna 172 to take part in the air rally.
My better half did not have the opportunity to join us, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, which insisted she take a delightful cruise with 5000 of her not-so-closest shipmates.
Over several weeks we had an absolutely delightful trip, starting at Masterton, which is at the southern tip of the North Island. On the first leg we crossed the Cook Strait to the South Island. Over the next few days we looped around past Milford Sound and Wānaka, which are absolutely stunning, and then headed back north past Christchurch, across the Strait again and then clockwise around the North Island. Each day was a planned takeoff with a timed start and the goal of crossing certain waypoints and landing at an interesting destination. Most of the airfields have their own flying clubs, which conveniently also have nice pubs attached. We got really used to hangar flying with their spectacular and oh so refreshing beer at the end of each day. Along the way, we got to do some air-to-air photography with members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, as well as fellow participants in the air safari. We were also able to trade rides in different aircraft.
A Day at the Airshow
The air rally ended at the biannual Classic Fighters airshow at Omaka Aerodrome, in Blenheim, on the northern side of the South Island. For those who don’t know, this show alternates years with the Warbirds Over Wānaka event. Both are absolutely unbelievable airshows highlighting the best of New Zealand aviation and showcase a number of incredibly unusual and rare aircraft in amazing natural amphitheaters.
Omaka Aerodrome is in a natural half bowl, with mountains circling the backdrop to the south. The timing of the airshow usually lends itself to spectacular lighting and excellent photography. The site is also home to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, which features film director Peter Jackson’s collection of WW-I aircraft. Personal items belonging to Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred von Richthofen, René Fonck and other aces are also on display.
The first day when the airshow started, I had the opportunity to get on an elevated stand for photographers. Being in New Zealand, surrounded by amazing aircraft at a terrific venue, I was as happy as a pig in, well, you know…
There was an English gentleman—I later learned his name was Nigel Hitchman—next to me on the stand. Throughout the show we chatted a bit, but not too much. I didn’t want to interfere with anything he was doing or distract him, and I was trying to take everything in and do my own photography. Also, I tend to be somewhat introverted.
During a break between aircraft, we finally started talking more, and it turned out he is a captain with British Airways. He travels quite a bit visiting different museums, airshows and generally anything aviation related around the world. Being only a private pilot myself, I didn’t have much expertise to offer to a BA captain, although I think I held my own with historical trivia. Eventually the topics wandered around to different aircraft we’ve both flown, and he asked what I was flying currently. I mentioned that I had built a GlaStar and have flown it around most of the Western U.S. I pulled up a picture of my aviation baby and he commented, “Oh yes, I’ve flown that plane.”
“You’ve flown a GlaStar?” I replied.
“No, well yes, I’ve flown a GlaStar,” he said. “In fact, that GlaStar.”
Now I was confused. I had never met this gentleman before, and I’m not sure when he would have seen or actually flown my aircraft, being that I built it and no one else has ever owned it.
“Ummm…when?” I was wrinkling my forehead and genuinely confused. Perhaps my new friend was prone to misremembering?
“Oh, in California, last year,” Nigel replied. “At a Bücker fly-in held at Gillespie Field.”
Suddenly it all came together! The prior year the same friends I was in New Zealand with were planning on flying their Bücker Jungmann to that gathering in San Diego—the very same Bücker I had met them under years before. However, their Bücker had mechanical issues and was grounded.
While it’s a bit like loaning your baby out, we managed to make things work for them to take my plane instead of the Bücker and still make the trip. While there, they had taken Nigel up for a flight in my GlaStar. Questions answered and the mystery solved. Neither of them knew the other was going to be at that event!
It’s rather mind-blowing. Here I was in New Zealand, meeting a gentleman from the U.K. with a mutual aviation connection in the U.S. The distances are vast, but the aviation world is small. In the time since then, we have become great friends and have crossed paths consistently. We’ve seen each other at airshows and fly-ins all over the globe and have shared many meals, pints of beer, laughter and great times.
When you stop to think about it, the coincidences are amazing: From a broken leg, to a bit of shade, to friendships and flying a borrowed plane from Colorado to California, to realizing a dream to fly in another country, to sharing a photography stand and striking up a conversation—it seemed to come full circle. Many times since then we’ve laughed about this weird turn of events and wondered how they could have come to pass. But, then again, how could they not? After all…it is a small world.