Joyriding Middle Earth: Mt Cook to Mount Cook

Welcome again to another of my joyrides. I’m sure you’re quite familiar with them. Well, here’s another domestic joyride series. This series of two contains breathtaking scenery - something that I hope will entice you to visit the South Island of New Zealand even more than before. As I’m sure you’re well aware, New Zealand is the backdrop for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. There’s even a guidebook if you want to find the exact locations of where specific scenes were shot. If you were wondering what the arrows are all about, read on and you will find out (Though the left arrow should really be pointing at a plane!).

This TR covers a flight to Mount Cook Airport on Mount Cook Airline. Mount Cook Airline is a wholly owned subsidiary of Air New Zealand and they operate the ATR fleet. There was talk at the beginning of 2012 about Mount Cook Airline restarting trial flights to Mount Cook as a stopover between Christchurch and Queenstown. There was to be a six week window where an ATR 72 would operate 3x weekly CHC-MON-ZQN return flights. If this was to be successful, it could open up to seasonal flights every year. It was a flight I vowed not to miss. The flight from CHC to ZQN itself pays its way with such stunning scenery so adding this extra stop at Mount Cook Airport was certain to be the cherry on the top. I booked early and the long wait began! In fact, I booked so early in advance that Air NZ automatically changed my booking to the nonstop CHC-ZQN flight, assuming I was oblivious to the Mount Cook stop! I rang up Air NZ customer services and was told that no such flight to Mount Cook existed, even though I could see it on the website. It had me bemused so I made a few emails and just like that, I found myself back on the flight. So thanks to those who helped me get back onto the flight!

The main focus is on the CHC-MON-ZQN sector but I’ll also cover the flight there and back briefly. The centre of the South Island was the location for many scenes for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I suppose I get the inspiration to do these reports about NZ from them!

23 December 2012

The day came for this joyride to catch the first Air NZ scheduled flight to Mount Cook in 10 years. Excited as usual, I found myself at the airport early to do a bit of spotting before the flight.

So... How many All Blacks liveried planes can be seen?

All Blacks Beechcraft 1900D

All Blacks 77W

All Blacks A320 (first of two)

QF8 - 744ER, fuel stop between DFW and BNE

Airside view

KE 744

Soon after, it was time to board.

Flight Information

23 December 2012
Routing: Auckland - Christchurch (AKL-CHC)
Airline: Air New Zealand
Flight: NZ509
Scheduled Time of Departure: 0900hrs
Actual Departure: 0914hrs (pushback), 0926hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1020hrs
Touchdown: 1030hrs
Flight time: 1 hr 4 min
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Registration: ZK-OJQ
Seat: 28F

ZK-OJQ is the second oldest domestic A320 in the Air NZ fleet (Air NZ bought some A320s to replace the 737s well after the original order for the ones, which serve the short haul international routes). It was delivered in February 2011.

Air New Zealand has taken a page from Jetstar’s book and have started rear boarding for those seated in the back half of the A320. It makes for a nice walk outside!

The nice ramp view

While we were settling down, a boy sitting across the aisle from me got the hiccups. A flight attendant quickly fetched him a glass of water. Not only that, but the flight attendants proceeded on a pre-flight cookie run for all the kids onboard. That’s the first time I’d seen such service and what a surprise! These little things really make passengers feel valued. Other than that, it was just like any other domestic flight and I’ve written many of them!


The 733 will only be around for another few years

Taxiing to the runway

Doing a 180 after departure, heading southwest

The West Coast

Cookie snack

Farewell Spit, the northwest corner of the South Island

Abel Tasman National Park

Inner Kaikoura Range

And just like that, the uneventful flight came to an end and I was in Christchurch ready for the next leg.

CHC Domestic baggage claim

International check in area


I went up to the top floor of the carpark to see if I could get a view of anything. Too heat hazed and no traffic.. But I spotted another All Blacks plane from up there!

Since there wasn’t much happening, I headed to the regional departure area. It’s a really nice place to chill before a flight - well designed.

A few more minutes and my flight was ready to board this special flight to Mount Cook on Mount Cook.

Flight Information

23 December 2012
Routing: Christchurch - Mount Cook (CHC-MON)
Airline: Air New Zealand Link (Mount Cook Airline)
Flight: NZ5411
Scheduled Time of Departure: 1145hrs
Actual Departure: 1152hrs (pushback), 1157hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1225hrs
Touchdown: 1252hrs
Flight time: 55 min
Aircraft: ATR 72-500
Registration: ZK-MCX
Seat: 4D

Delivered in July 2002, this ATR 72-500 has been around for over a decade. The ATR 72-500s replaced the older ATR 72-200s; but so far, the ATR 72-600s which have been acquired have been used for growth rather than the replacement of the -500s.

GPS tracking of the entire route through to ZQN




As you can’t tell what plane is at what gate from the departure lounge, I was holding onto a slim bit of hope that it was the All Blacks ATR 72-600 which would operate the first flight to Mount Cook in 10 years.. But as it happens, we were assigned the plane next door!

Oh well, I’ll get you sometime

That’s the one to operate this special flight

I was hoping that Air NZ would do something special to commemorate this flight. Lo and behold, there was a brown paper bag on every seat! Inside the bag, there was a magnet, a postcard, a chocolate, trail mix and a cookie. It was great to see them get behind this flight and make it special. I’m not entirely sure if all the passengers onboard knew that this flight would make a stop in Mount Cook.


Before the flight commenced, a crewmember made an announcement about this flight and talked about its history. If I had known, I would have recorded it because I can’t remember what was said! Though it had been some 50 years since the first flight into Mount Cook Airport and just over 10 years since Air NZ Link stopped scheduled services there. Soon after, the engines were started and we were bound for Mount Cook!

A far cry from what was the old Air NZ domestic pier. The airport makeover was done in a way that they’d keep the skeleton and simply build around it. It also meant that the wonderful open air observation deck was to be closed and built over.

On the runway

A Virgin Blue E90 at the NZ Maintenance hangars

Into the cloud above Christchurch

As you can see from the GPS data above, we did a big loop over Christchurch on our way south. Unfortunately there was a layer of cloud right over the Canterbury Plains, which inhibited any sort of view of the quake-stricken city and the agricultural fields surrounding the South Island’s largest city. But anyway we progressed inland and thankfully the cloud started thinning out.

A flight with a 50 minute block time doesn’t provide much time at all for catering onboard. These super short flights never have a tea/coffee run, simply because there’s not enough time to perform it. So everyone was offered water, a cookie and a piece of fudge.

The food’s never the important part when flying in this area of the country! I was amazed to see the cloud completely disappear as we made our way further inland, closing in on our destination. It stopped at the mountains just before Lake Tekapo.

Beautiful weather ahead!

Fantastic view of Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo lies to the east of Lake Pukaki. Mount Cook Airport lies to the north of Lake Pukaki. Both of these lakes are a special blue colour, thanks to the minerals brought down by glaciers and melted snow from the Southern Alps.

Mount Cook Airport is a VFR (visual flight rules) airport - there is no ATC to my knowledge and no instrument guidance to the airport. If the weather isn’t good enough, apparently they use another airport in the area. But probably the one awesome fact about this VFR approach is that the area between the lakeshore and the airport is flown at 1000ft above ground level! It gets you up close and personal with the surroundings; which being in a valley means mountains on either side of the plane!

Pictures, even as many as I have included for the approach and departure, cannot show how awesome it is to land or take off from Mount Cook Airport. I’m sure you can get a little feel of it. It’s a place too easily missed if one simply flies between Christchurch and Queenstown, yet it is so wonderful.

Approaching Lake Pukaki

Making a turn to the north. Note the canal joins Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo; and there are salmon farms somewhere along this canal.

Descending past Lord of the Rings land (fyi the Pelennor Fields battle was staged around this area).. I could imagine a pack of Uruk-Hai running across the field!

Mount Cook on the left

Mount Sefton

Final approach

Mount Cook Airport!

Turning around at the end of the runway

Cabin shot while disembarking

And my oh my.. What a treat to disembark to such wonderful scenery! I bet there are very few airports around the world capable of handling an AT7 or bigger with the same feel as this one. It’s times like these when you truly believe in the nickname “Godzone” (short for God’s own country) given to New Zealand. For all those still wondering what the arrows on the title picture are pointing at, you’ll be glad to know that the first arrow is Mount Cook and the second arrow is where the report is up to, Mount Cook Airport!

Mount Cook Village itself is tiny, with a population of 250. It’s a 55km drive up a dead end road to the village from the main State Highway linking Christchurch with Central Otago. The village is a few km northwest of the airport. The landmark building of the village is the hotel, The Hermitage.

At the top of the stairs while disembarking

A shot with the crew! I just tagged along with the journalist photographer for this one.

So here we have a Mount Cook Airline plane at Mount Cook Airport with Mount Cook in the background!

Along with everyone else onboard, I was absolutely blown away at the amazing scenery on hand. The majority of passengers oblivious to the stop in Mount Cook were stunned. The place itself was so tranquil. The surroundings even seemed to hush the murmur of people talking.

The Hermitage Mount Cook had also provided passengers with sparkling wine!

If I was in charge of the scheduling, I’d have allowed enough time in order for passengers to take a Mount Cook scenic flight with a landing on the Tasman Glacier before making it back for the flight to Queenstown; or even better, a package deal including the scenic flight. I suppose with the weather being so unpredictable, it’d be hard to manage. I’m pretty sure that there were days during this trial where the plane couldn’t land at Mount Cook Airport. I’d have taken this opportunity to hit the glacier if I had assurance I wouldn’t miss the ongoing flight to Queenstown. I’ll definitely be back there sometime to take that flight but in the meantime, here’s a link to Sam Chui’s report of hi flight to the glacier:

One of Mount Cook’s ski planes

The terminal

Inside the terminal, check in on the right

A plane ski!

Scenic flight desk

And just like that, our time at Mount Cook Airport was over and we were called back to board the plane.

Flight Information

23 December 2012
Routing: Mount Cook - Queenstown (MON-ZQN)
Airline: Air New Zealand Link (Mount Cook Airline)
Flight: NZ5411
Scheduled Time of Departure: 1330hrs
Actual Departure: 1344hrs (pushback), 1347hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1410hrs
Touchdown: 1420hrs
Flight time: 33 min
Aircraft: ATR 72-500
Registration: ZK-MCX
Seat: 4D

The VFR nature of the airport meant that the departure was also restricted. This meant a ceiling of 1000ft until we reached the northern shore of Lake Pukaki.

Farewell to the mountains

Full thrust!


Leveling off

And climbing to cruising altitude!

The fantastic colour of the lake

It was such a short flight that there wasn’t time for any service. Everyone was just sitting back and taking in the fantastic views.

The first time I’d seen the toilet onboard the ATR 72!

You can see everyone looking out the window - a testament for the great scenery on offer

Lakes Wanaka and Hawea

Cardrona Ski field

Short final over the river


And that was the end of the magnificent set of flights across the South Island. I had a few hours to burn at ZQN so I went around to the golf course for some plane spotting.

Virgin Australia 738

Air NZ A320

Jetstar A320

Qantas 738

After seeing the international wave depart, it was time to go back to the airport.


All Blacks A320 (2 of 2), to take me home!

And look who showed up in Queenstown! The All Blacks ATR 72! I should have flown home via CHC!

And just like that it was time to leave the South Island. However we didn’t leave on time as one of the FAs fell ill during the flight down from Auckland and we had to wait for a replacement FA.

Flight Information

23 December 2012
Routing: Queenstown - Auckland (ZQN-AKL)
Airline: Air New Zealand
Flight: NZ648
Scheduled Time of Departure: 1640hrs
Actual Departure: 1730hrs (pushback), 1742hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1825hrs
Touchdown: 1918hrs
Flight time: 1hr 36 min
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Registration: ZK-OJR
Seat: 19F

I’ve flown this All Blacks plane before, also on a ZQN-AKL leg - in my previous trip report from NZ:

It made its first commercial service on 20 Nov 2011, making it 13 months old for this flight.

Taxiing down the far end

Looking down the runway towards Queenstown. The hill on the left is Kelvin Heights and they shot some LOTR sequences from there. Amazing how they’re 5 minutes away from an airport and down the hill from civilisation, yet they can make it look like nobody else is around!

Rotate! Looking down to where I was taking photos earlier

Queenstown below

Queenstown had started a new departure procedure which removed the awesome 270 degree left bank not long after takeoff. The new one consists of an ‘s’ bend of sorts with an initial turn left followed by a turn to the right, behind Walter Peak (The place where the TSS Earnslaw does shuttles to and from everyday, for those who have been to Queenstown).

Turning left

Turning right

It somehow meanders its way to pass over the airport on its way north. I need to take a GPS recording of it next time!

It was just another relaxing domestic flight after the departure. Beautiful weather right up the Southern Alps gave a fantastic view of snow capped mountains. And not long into the flight, we passed over Mount Cook, the place I visited earlier in the day.

Lake Pukaki

Getting Mount Cook into the frame with Mount Cook Airport and Lake Pukaki

If only the weather was like this all the time! I could never get sick of such great scenery. I know so many people who live in Auckland but have never been to the South Island. They’re missing out on a gem in their backyard. Don’t make that mistake when you plan your trip down to New Zealand!

After a bit of a snooze, it was time for arrival back into Auckland.

Base turn to final for 05R

Parking next to All Black A320 #1!

Just like that, my day was over. No superlatives could describe how epic the day’s joyrides were. The weather definitely played its part in showcasing the fantastic scenery the country has to offer. I'd like to thank Air New Zealand and Mount Cook Airline for the opportunity to fly into Mount Cook and hope that a scheduled service will return in the not too distant future. It definitely deserves a second chance. 18 return flights with minimal publicity doesn’t give it a run for its money. I can say how much of a success it could turn into, if only it was marketed more widely or trialled a bit more extensively. Of course, you’ll always have those passengers who want to get to their destination as quickly as they possibly can. But having said that, I was delighted to see how well everyone who didn’t expect this short stopover in Mount Cook loved the experience.

From a tourist’s perspective (not just an aviation enthusiast’s), I think it really has potential. If people just knew a bit more about it, I’m sure that it’d gather enough interest to remain a route. Most tourists would enjoy this stop. I’d be If you ever have a chance of flying in and out of the best scenic airport (which can take big passenger planes) in the country, don’t miss that opportunity! The fact that you’re flying at 1000ft for such a long time is great!

So thanks once again for joining me on another joyride. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. And may it tempt you to book a flight down to New Zealand!

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