Leaving Porirua, I felt a sense of relief that I wasn’t the only eccentric living in a caravan, and taking the road north for Paekakariki, I went to investigate the ‘fly-by-wire‘ - another Kiwi innovation that transformed the stunning and tranquil, but potentially boring scenery into a high energy adrenalin thrill (or rather thrill!!!)
The story goes that, in 1995, a New Zealand inventor and entrepreneur named Neil Harrah ‘visualised a plane, powered by an engine and pilot controlled, suspended by a strong cable and capable of high speed’. I approached the site with some trepidation, and taking one look at the ‘death trap by wire’ promptly lost my nerve, turned tale and returned to the nearby BP station. Standing amongst the chocolate biscuits and Mrs Macs Pies, I watched a video demonstration of some plucky soul in a contraption flying around the hills in circles and figures of eight.
“Yeah gonna go for a trip on the ‘wire?”, called out a friendly middle aged Maori woman from behind the counter. Well, I wasn’t sure I told her, butterflies performing their own circles within my stomach. “Mate, it’s great fun, eh, and quiet up there now, y’can knock him down on the price, besides y’know you‘ll regret it if you don’t!”. She’d obviously been working here awhile, and as well as selling petrol, saw encouraging potential fly-by-wirers as part of her job description. I knew she was absolutely right. I went back, paid my bucks, signed my name on the disclaimer, and before I could change my mind, was being strapped into a high speed rocket.
Lying down on my stomach, facing me was a steering column and a throttle - but no brakes. “I’ll winch you up the hill, and when I give the signal, just hit the throttle, and release the safety catch.” I nodded nervously. “Don’t worry mate, she’ll be sweet as.” I certainly hoped so, besides, I was strapped in and secure now and past the point of no return. The wire hauled me backwards up the hillside by my feet until I was hanging sixty metres vertically off the ground. Upside down, it seemed all the blood was draining through my body to my head. A little giddy with adrenalin, my arms were aching from supporting my body weight, instinctively not trusting the straps that were the only thing preventing my falling headfirst to the ground a hundred feet below in a broken crumpled heap.
Reving the throttle I hit the release catch and accelerated headfirst towards the ground. The combined force of gravity and the engine conspired to create an acceleration exceeding a hundred kilometres per hour. Whistling through the air, I plunged quickly towards the ground, and within a few metres of some terrible accident, the cable gracefully swung me upwards in a giant arc, pulling me up the opposite side of the valley. The air rushed past and the landscape swept beneath me. I pulled the steering wheel hard left and swung around and returned to fly back down the valley. Flying in a series of figures of eight, at high speed over the valley, a herd of sheep munched contentedly on the grass as I flew low over their heads, neither distracted nor impressed by yet another lunatic in a rocket. With the initial terror subsiding I was surprised to find myself rather relaxed. Flying around, in perfect control of my flight, I was able to admire the view, and actually began to enjoy the sensation of flight. Whilst the first few seconds of blood-pumping adrenalin had felt like an eternity, the seven minutes of flight passed in a moment, and all too soon, I was returned to the safety of both my feet firmly on the ground. “I told yer she’d be alright, still we did have one accident, poor lady crashed into the take-off point. Terrible that was.”