Fly by, Drop in

Air SUV opens up places less travelled.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Air SUV opens up places less travelled.

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“The place is so hot that most of the town is actually built underground.”

The blue glassy waters sandwiched between green-coated cliffs mesmerised John Giddens. His two teenagers, Jasmine and Hallin, let out squeals of excitement.

This is, after all, Lord of the Rings country.

From high up in the air, New Zealand’s Milford Sound in mid-autumn of 2012 is bewitching, but a pang of fear bit Lily, his wife. With cliffs on both sides rising as high as 1,700m, even the best of pilots can’t afford a mistake.

The nature of the rugged mountain terrain can create conditions that are challenging and maybe even frightening for an aviator. Even a clear day can spell trouble, in the form of violent turbulence.

In the flight deck, Giddens kept his eyes peeled on the less-than-a-kilometre long airstrip. After 16 years of flying, he owns a steady pair of hands and brought the Daher TBM 900 turboprop to a safe landing.

There are scheduled flights in and out of Milford Sound. Lodges, motels and cruises provide accommodation for tourists. But he was taking his family on a day trip to view the majestic fiords from the air at a pace they preferred.

The turboprop is a flying SUV for the Giddens. “The advantage of piloting your own plane is that you can go to exotic places at will that don’t usually have scheduled flights,” says the Singapore-based Briton whose career involves immersion rather than flight. The former navy diver founded Hallin Marine, a company that operated a fleet of subsea operation boats to service the oil industry.

“We were on a two-week tour of New Zealand and planned our trip with far more flexibility and convenience, than if we flew on commercial jets around the country. We visited many more places flying in the TBM 900, and Milford Sound and its breathtaking fiords were our reward. It is definitely one of the best places I’ve flown to.” Giddens piloted the French-made TBM 900 solo for three days from Singapore to New Zealand. With a maximum range of 1,700 nautical miles, he made stops in between at Bali, Darwin, Sydney and Norfolk Island, before linking up with his family, who took a 10-hour commercial flight to Auckland.

“I enjoy flying, but it would have been too tiring for Lily and the kids if they had come on board for the long trip.” Owning an aircraft has opened up places to Giddens that are usually not high on the must-see list for tourists, or even hard-core travellers. For the avid aviator, it is just a matter of planning a flight route that covers these places to his final destination.

The 56-year-old often flies to Australia and, in one such expedition, penned in Alice Springs to refuel on the hop between Darwin and Adelaide. Located in the centre of Australia, the desert town usually sees only foreign tourists on their way to a sixhour drive to Ayers Rock.

“I wanted to see what the place is like,” says Giddens. “It is a small modern town with hotels that service industries and people living in central Australia. I’ve been there a few times since.”

His flying expeditions are sometimes eye-openers. Like when he was on the way home to Singapore from Australia and decided to stop over for a few hours on Christmas Island, 350km south of Java.

The island was once administered by Singapore when the city-state was a British Crown Colony, before it was transferred to Australia in 1958 as part of its territory. “It is an interesting place and I am planning for a longer visit the next time,” he enthuses.

Other jaunts on the TBM 900 sometimes spring a surprise or two and he is eager to tell one that, for many, beggars belief.

He says: “I was on my way to Tasmania for a fishing trip in 2013 and planned a stop at Coober Pedy, an opal mining town in the outback 750 km northwest of Adelaide.

“My son had been bugging me about it but, on the descent, there was little to suggest a town existed in the area.” It took a while after they landed before someone appeared, sold them some fuel for the aeroplane, and drove them to Coober Pedy. When they arrived, Giddens was blown away.

“The place is so hot that most of the town is actually built underground,” he reveals. “It was surreal because there is everything you’d expect in a town: homes, hotels, restaurants, pubs, and even a museum and church. Unlike the heat above, it is actually cool below. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As an owner of an aircraft, Giddens is in control of where and when he wants to travel. He seldom leaves Singapore without it, even to Europe on occasion.

“I guess the big advantage of flying your own plane is the ability to go to places with little or no access to scheduled flights,” he explains.

“Sometimes, places like Coober Pedy, which can receive only light aircraft, turn out to be real gems!”