In control in the clouds

Being able to fly a helicopter was a dream that turned into an addiction for instructor Steve Taylor.

A marine mechanic by trade, he reached midlife and decided it was time to chase his long-held ambition of flying helicopters. He sold his North Island business and thought: "Right - I'm going to go do it".

He now works for TNT Helicopters and U Fly Heli in Motueka, giving others the chance to experience helicopter flight through a learn-as-you-fly experience and more extensive pilot training.

The joy of his new career has not dimmed, and he can swiftly tick off the benefits.

"It's obviously the flying, but it's so scenic. Manoeuvrability - you can go anywhere you want to go and land, within reason, where you want to land. You can do a lot more in it than you can with a fixed-wing aircraft. The freedom - that's basically it.

"You get withdrawal symptoms if you are not doing it."

TNT Helicopters and U Fly Heli owner and chief flying instructor Ross Troughton says customers often come chasing a dream they had when they were younger.

"They get to middle age and think, ‘Right, I am going to fulfil that dream I had 20 years ago'."

Troughton came from the North Island to start his pilot training in Motueka back in the 1990s, and has never left.

"I'm still here with a wife and family. I love the area."

He has had the helicopter business for more than 10 years, and fits it around his fulltime job as an Air New Zealand pilot.

The company attracts a varied clientele, roughly half-and-half locals and tourists.

"We had a 17-year-old the other day - it was his dream to have a crack at flying a helicopter, and now he wants to carry it on and finish it - right up to people in their 70s and 80s," Troughton says.

Clients can fly right over Abel Tasman National Park, but the U Fly Heli experience is a participatory one.

"The main thing there is that it is a trial flight. You can't just go for an aviation scenic flight - you have to be able to participate."

The training flights take place in one of three Robinson R22s. Troughton says the model has had some bad press from time to time but statistically, it is the safest helicopter in the world, as well as the most popular.

It's not just a big boy's toy, though. Troughton says women are also interested in flying helicopters, with quite a few female instructors, and are usually better to have in the cockpit.

"Women are probably easier to teach because they don't have any pre-conceived ideas. They tend to be a little bit more relaxed on the controls. They don't tend to muscle as much, and tend to pick it up fairly quickly."

Student pilot Matthew Lance, from Texas, says he chose TNT Helicopters because of the diverse experience it offers. Flying over both sea and mountains in such a small area is not an option in Texas. "This is the best training area in the world, bar none," Troughton says.

Taylor agrees. "This area is just awesome. You really couldn't get a better place with the scenery and the weather is really a huge thing here, because there are not many days you cannot fly."

But this is a hobby with a hefty price tag.

Becoming a non-commercial helicopter pilot costs about $30,000 - but Taylor says people often spend this on a car or a boat

without blinking an eye.

If a student carries on to become an instructor or a commercial pilot, he or she can make a living out of it.

"In my situation and a lot of others," says Taylor, you only get only one shot at life, so it's a matter of just going and doing those things."

"I think a lot of people think helicopter flying is out of their reach when actually it's not."

Troughton and Taylor haven't had too many tricky moments, but there is a lot to be aware of, such as the speed the helicopter moves compared to how it feels.

"You're actually going a lot faster than you realise. When you are up really high, you don't realise how fast you are really going. When you get down low to the ground, you are actually going quite fast," Taylor says.

"It's not dangerous or anything. You've just got to be a little bit aware of what you are doing and be alert all the time. But it's just a matter of teaching it, and is no different to driving a car, really."

The pair say anyone can take a turn at the controls.

"You can be a 70-year-old grandma and come and learn to fly," Troughton says. "We've had that, and they go away with their mouths just about splitting their heads in half. It's just something so totally different."