Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Gliding through the day

The way Northland dairy farmer and glider pilot Paul Rockell talks about soaring along the air currents at the top end of the country with both coasts in sight makes you want to get airborne yourself. He has such a passion for gliding that he has arranged the paddocks on the family dairy farm at Puhipuhi, north of Whangarei, to accommodate a 1400m-long takeoff and landing strip, as well as the hangar for the Northland Gliding Club’s two aircraft and a clubroom that also serves as the local community hall. Pilots come from around the world to soar over the region after viewing pictures on the club’s Facebook page. The local pilots range in age from 14 to 82. Others to use the strip include air cadets from Auckland to Kaitaia. Paul is proud of the whole deal and claims that the Northland Gliding Club offers the cheapest flights anywhere in the world, and the cheapest glider-pilot training. He grew up with dairying.

"My Dad (Geoff) came through the ranks, from farm labourer to sharemilker and eventually he bought a property at Mata just south of Whangarei."

Eventually Paul went into partnership with him.

"I grew up milking cows – that's how it is on a farm."

Now his own sons, Noel and Phillip, are partners in the family operation that has since shifted to the other side of the northern city, just north of Hikurangi. Together they run three properties in close proximity, around 500ha all-up, with a herd of between 1200 and 1300 Jersey and Jersey-cross cows that last season produced 470,000kg of milksolids (MS) for Fonterra.

The country is rolling to flat, on the tableland of a volcanic basalt lava flow that has broken down over more than 20 million years, he said.

"So the soil's pretty good, a mix of clay and lime."

They grow all the feed the animals need in a good year when there is regular rainfall, and in a bad year when it's dead dry one of the properties can still produce enough thanks to irrigation. The feed on the other two is supplemented with palm kernel.

"Farming in Northland is always a challenge," Paul said.

And in mid-February things were no different, with the land being “pretty dry”.

This is usually because of consecutive high pressure systems floating off Australia and when the Aussies are getting all the rain we're getting great gliding weather.
"It's one or the other," he said.

Paul started flying at 28.

"I'd worked hard for a few years in a row, with not much in the way of holidays, so I wanted to find something to get the family off the farm for a bit of recreational time."
Why gliding?

"I guess it must have been all that time chasing cows and grubbing gorse, daydreaming about where I'd rather be. It got in my head that I'd learn to fly and getting a full pilot's licence was out of the question money-wise so I visited the Whangarei Gliding Club."

Son Noel was one month old when the family camped beside the airstrip for a week while Paul took an intensive crash course (pardon the pun) as a trainee. Wife Helen has been "camp mother" for the gliding enthusiasts ever since. They travelled around the North Island as time allowed while Paul competed in local club competitions.

The Whangarei Gliding Club was originally formed in the early 1960s. Members got a bit ambitious and bought a club glider but didn't manage to raise enough money to keep the operation going. Debt forced a sell-up and 10 years in hibernation. In the early 1980s it got going again, moving repeatedly from one site to another, one of them as far north as Kaikohe.

And then Paul came to the fore.

Club site

"When the family moved north and went through all the resource consent process I started to think about it. I got to know an elderly Maori gentleman who had some flat land in the Hikurangi swamp area which suited a strip and met the consent process and we negotiated with him to put the club there. It was very basic. We had to do a lot of work levelling the paddocks and putting in drainage, getting rid of rushes, building a hangar."

Seven years later the old bloke died, title changed hands and they were out.

"He was old school. He thought that because he was a kaumatua his word was law and so he didn't have any legal arrangements made before he died."

That was more than 13 years ago. Paul decided he had appropriate land and began work on it. Fencing was changed to allow a 1400m strip with plenty of runoff width either side. Two hangars were built. The now-flash clubrooms began life as a pig shed.

The club now owns an ASK13 trainer and a Grob 109B motor glider, and several members have their own aircraft. A glider can cost as little as $40,000 and up to as much as 10 times that.

All launches at Puhipuhi are by winch, the 351cu/in motor from an old Cleveland V8 strapped to the back of a tractor providing 380h/power that can throw the gliders up to 600m or more. The winch has two drums so two gliders can be launched in quick succession. The beauty of Rockell's property is that the strip sits atop a ridge where both wind and thermal uprisings provide lift to get up as high as 6000m.

But take-off time is determined by flying conditions as there needs to be rise off the land and that usually happens in the afternoon. Paul reckons that at this time of year he can almost set his watch by it, checking conditions before lunch with a trip to a high point on the farm then, after lunch, airborne by 2.30pm. The ideal rises and winds don't persist all day – there is a 'peak period' for the best launches which will send the gliders into air rising rapidly, so they can get the uplift for longer flights.

There are two distinct gliding seasons for the Northland club, Paul explained.

"Northland is known for 'convergence flying,' where the cool air coming off the sea meets warm air on land and drives under it, producing fantastic uplift.

The west coast sea breeze front can always be spotted from far away with its hanging walls of cloud 300-450m below the inland cloud base.

“The moist marine air carries on up to 1500m or more and then you find "an amazing bank of cloud like a huge cliff above you, running almost in a straight line up the country".

He reckons it’s the cloud bank that gave this country its Maori name.

"It's likely this was the original long white cloud of Aotearoa as seen from the first arriving canoes."

But he also describes "pale mother-of-pearl coloured stringers of condensing cloud rising all around you".

Skirting the cloud bank, he said "is like flying on a rail that guides you".

The gliders can reach speeds of 130 knots or around 230km/hour at this time and a round-trip 300-400km to Cape Reinga and back can take three and a half to four hours. They get convergence conditions from December to March, when the ground is dry and winds from the east prevail.

Then there is 'wave' flying, when equinoxial winds blowing off the Tasman Sea hit the long volcanic hills of Northland and are forced quickly upwards.

"They can set off lift to 6000m no problem."

The pilots need oxygen once over much more than 3000m. The wave flying is best from September to November, then from the end of March to the end of May. Either way, you can see both coasts.

"Northland is 70km wide at its widest point and most of it is far less."

The club's members soar across the Mangataniwha Ranges to the West Coast and over the Hokianga Harbour, down to the Kaipara then home, though they can easily do a fly-over above Auckland when conditions are good.

Paul said he never tires of the thrill nor the stunning scenery whether it be shooting over the brilliant white sand of the East Coast or vibrant green forest followed by the black sand of the west, despite gliding almost daily when the weather and work allow.

He's following in the footsteps of the club's oldest member, former instructor Lester Chapman, 82, who 'retired' as a teacher two years ago but still enjoys a flight.

"I'm 60 now and God knows how that happened but I'd like to follow him on."

Lester said the only bad thing about siting the Puhipuhi strip on a dairy farm is the cow dung.

"It splashes a bit. It gets right up under the wings and all over the place. You've got to get it off fairly quickly because it has a bad habit of sticking hard once it dries."

Strip grazing

Phillip, as farm manager, makes sure the cows graze during the week, and at morning and evening on weekends, when the pilots aren't flying.

"It doesn't interfere with the farming operation much and it doesn't reduce our feed supply," Paul said.

Paul didn’t agree with trading among farmers (TAF), seeing it as the beginning of a slippery slope that will lead to "farmers here being serfs in our own nation" while profits are scooped by those in suits.

"Maybe I'm a conservative person but I see it as the beginning of the end."

There is a limit to the amount of land that can be converted to dairying and already environmental concerns are overtaking business sense, he believes.

"The great mass of Kiwis aren't as supportive of dairying now as they used to be,” he said.

“All they see in the headlines is the farmer who has to pay an $80,000 fine. They don't read about the work being done to improve farming practices and the efforts the majority of farmers are making."

He's no fan of bureaucracy and believes that as a nation we're being over-regulated all-round, including gliding.

The Rockells’ third son Carl met a girl in England while on his OE and runs a dairy farm in Devon. Paul and Helen have visited often and he's flown in England and France. He views what’s happening in Europe as a forerunner to what's coming here.

"It's getting so over-regulated that it might be legislated out of existence in Europe soon,” he said.

“It's crazy because this is a safe sport. But we are having the same problems here with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). They send out these edicts that make no distinction between a glider and a 747. If there's a growth industry in this country it's authority."

He's not that enamoured of the means by which the authorities manage the money destined for sporting pursuits either and feels strongly that gliding doesn't even get a look-in. The Northland club has raised $50,000 through its members for purchase of a third glider but despite years of applications to various organisations such as the Pub Charity system that runs off gaming machines they have had no joy.

"We host up to 30 air cadets at times,” he said.

“We like to give the kids from Auckland and Northland an introduction to flying. We sign up kids from the local district who are enthusiasts. We have a 14-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl training now and we could do more if we had better support. It's part of the human spirit to want to take a risk, have a thrill, do something different from everyone else."

The club operates on weekends and public holidays all year round, weather permitting, and for a month continuously over the height of summer, and welcomes newcomers. It costs $50 for one launch and circuit of the area in the ASK13, where the pilot sits behind the student, and $100 for a launch and 15-minute flight in the motor-powered Grob 109 where they sit side-by-side. The club's instructors will take interested people through to get a glider pilot's licence for launch costs and an hourly rate for flying their aircraft. For more information visit

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