In September of last year, Jan and I planned one of our “bucket list trips”, to a place neither of us had ever been – New Zealand. In addition to going through the stunning Fiordslands, Queenstown activities and fine dining, horseback riding, glow worm underground cave tour, wine country, the east coast penguin colony and a visit to the heavily earthquake-damaged city of Christchurch, this also meant an opportunity for me to go gliding at one of our sports meccas: Omarama.
The date for the planned trip was set for the 22nd of February through the 6th of March. Unfortunately it ended up being at the same time as the SSA convention in Reno, but the bright side was there would be a 3-4 day window towards the end of the trip where depending on weather, I was going to be able to go soaring out of Omarama. I contacted GlideOmarama, which is owned/operated by Gavin Wills (a pretty famous glider pilot who also stars in one of the best gliding movies of all time with his late daughter Lucy). I booked time in one of their Duo Discus for an abbreviated personal mountain soaring adventure course over 2 days. They have the world’s largest fleet of 6 Duo Discus gliders and believe me they are well equipped with in-panel LX8000 flight computers and in amazingly pristine condition, no doubt in part because they have on site hangars where the gliders are stored every night. The facilities are truly world class.
Like often happens in our sport, the weather didn’t exactly cooperate and due to multiple low pressure systems and precipitation, I had to move things around to still make sure I could have an opportunity to fly with 2 of the days being a bust. One thing that I really appreciated as it relates to the weather, is the daily weather briefing that GlideOmarama puts on in the main building every day at 10am. A very experienced glider pilot leads a 10-15 minute discussion on the weather which is presented on a screen in Powerpoint format with about 15-20 slides supporting the weather and soaring forecasts for that day with a preview of the next day. It draws in a lot of pilots, even some who won’t be flying that day, to get a sense of the weather. They also make the forecast available electronically on their website so anyone can download it if they miss the briefing for any reason.
Both Saturday, March 3rd and Sunday March 4th ended up being flyable, but due to low ceilings in the mountains, were not going to be long or very high flights which Omarama is typically known for. Each day had a really personal mountain soaring briefing with a heavy emphasis on safety and effective techniques. Omarama literally has thermal, convergence, ridge and wave lift and all of them are frequently available on the same day. No wonder this is a soaring mecca!
As you can see from the flight traces at the end of the article, I was able to get in 2 great flights and developed a deeper appreciation for soaring below the ridge tops in the mountains as each of these flights spent considerable time below the ridges as we made our way through the challenging conditions. This is very different from much of the time I have spent soaring in the Sierras out of Truckee where our goal is to get high and stay high. One big difference is there are many, many landout options around Omarama, in fact they literally have a book you can purchase with detailed notes on all the airstrips and fields as well as a locally created map.
While the flights weren’t technically spectacular or long, the experience of flying with some of the best mountain soaring pilots in the world was one I won’t ever forget. I hope to get back some day and get another opportunity to potentially be there on a wave soaring day or a flight up to Mt. Cook and see the glaciers from a glider. I would highly recommend anyone contemplating a trip to New Zealand make sure you add time in Omarama to your itinerary. It is truly a special place for glider pilots and one that should be on everyone’s “Glider Pilot Bucket List”.