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Aviation history revisited

Up in the air

Haast. Photo by John King.


Ever since the first passengers took off on their first scenic flight from Hokitika back in December 1923, people have been queueing up for the thrill of a scenic flight over Westland.

It’s been a while now and this summer 2024, the West Coast is celebrating a centenary of flight-seeing.

Waitangi Weekend (2-6 February) Hokitika locals are preparing to welcome vintage planes and aviation enthusiasts from all over New Zealand for a series of special events at the Westland Aviation Centenary. But, even if you can’t make it for the special occasion, there are scenic flights to be had any day of the week year-round throughout the Westland region.

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Hokitika Airport

Westland celebrates a centenary of aviation history in February 2024.


New Zealand’s first-ever commercial scenic flights began in South Westland where the big attraction was (and still is) the twin glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox. Captain Maurice Buckley made that first historic flight, taking off from Hokitika Beach in his Avro 504k biplane, on 30 December 1923. Then, on 22 January 1924, he took passengers on a first-ever scenic flight to the glaciers.

Buckley’s passengers Dr Ebenezer Teichelmann, of Hokitika, and Timaru photographer Havelock Williams, were the first tourists to see the glaciers from the air, and they documented their pioneering flight by taking the first aerial photos of the glaciers.

A decade later, in 1934, New Zealand’s first licensed commercial air service – Captain Bert Mercer’s Air Travel (NZ) Ltd airline – began operating between Hokitika, the glaciers and Haast. The airline was a predecessor to Air New Zealand which continues to fly into Hokitika from Christchurch – a 45-minute scenic flight across the Southern Alps.

Travel Tip: For modern-day visitors, Teichelmann’s old home is now a smart B&B accommodation in central Hokitika. Find out more about the Westland Aviation Centenary.

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Fox Glacier

A scenic flight is the best way to get a perspective on the glaciers.


Scenic flights have been a highlight of West Coast tourism for a century. With little road access into these remote, beautiful places, small planes and helicopters have become the go-to transport — the quickest and easiest way to get about in and appreciate the absolute grandeur of these incredible landscapes.

Air Safari’s Grand Traverse is a magnificent scenic adventure. Taking off from Franz Josef in a small fixed wing, purpose-built for flight-seeing, the 45-50 minute traverse crosses the Southern Alps. Every passenger has a window seat for uninterrupted views of New Zealand’s most spectacular alpine scenery – the highest mountains, two national parks, and the twin glaciers. They can even pick you up on one side and drop you off on the other, or take you all the way to Milford Sound and back.

For an exclusive next-level airborne adventure, Inflite Experiences can show you the sights, land you on a glacier then let you jump out of a plane over all that stupendous beauty – alpine peaks, glaciers, lush forests and the ocean. The 30-minute helicopter flight from Franz Josef Heliport includes a landing on New Zealand’s longest glacier.

Learn more about the glacier region.

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Hokitika Gorge

Take off with Precision Helicopters for the best views of Hokitika Gorge.


The West Coast is big and wild – 600 km of rugged coastline fringed by the spectacular Southern Alps, often both within sight at once. While it’s never far from either here, it takes time to travel between the must-visit destinations.

Take your time on a magnificent scenic West Coast road trip then hop on a helicopter tour to take you where no roads go. From Hokitika, and based right near the iconic turquoise waters of the Hokitika Gorge and the foothills of the Southern Alps, Precision Helicopters flies visitors into the Southern Alps to experience breath-taking alpine wilderness — from snow-covered plateaus to alpine hot pools, remote mountain cabins, and multiple glaciers.

Visitors with a limited time window might opt for Hokitika-based Anderson Helicopters’ 2-hour tour of New Zealand’s highest mountain peak (Aoraki/Mt. Cook), longest glacier (Tasman Glacier), and the West Coast’s famed twin glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox. Other highlights include wilderness snowfields named the Garden of Eden and Garden of Allah, and the return flight path descending Fox Glacier out to the Tasman Sea and back along a dramatic coastline.

Learn more about the Hokitika region.

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Fox Glacier

Exploring the glacier on a guided heli hike expedition.


Exploring Franz Josef and Fox glacier is the peak outdoor experience for many visitors to the West Coast. Of the more than 60 glaciers found in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, these icy twins flowing almost to sea level form two of the world’s most accessible glaciers.

Retreating ice over recent decades means that it’s no longer possible to hike up the valley to the glaciers. The best way to experience the glaciers now is on a heli hike – a scenic helicopter flight combined with a snow landing and an easy 2-hour guided hike exploring the incredible ice-scape of towering formations, deep crevasses and luminous ice caves.

Not into hiking? Take a scenic flight from Fox or Franz with The Helicopter Line or Glacier Country Helicopters – operating from Whataroa, just outside Franz Josef village – over the glaciers and along the ‘great divide’ of the Southern Alps to Aoraki/Mt. Cook. Many flights include snow landings. Or take off from Franz Josef or Fox with family-owned Mountain Helicopters – scenic flights from a 10-minute overflight to ‘you name it’ private charters for special occasions and events.

Learn more about Glacier Country

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Discover stunning World Heritage landscapes on a scenic flight from Haast.


Haast is the western gateway to Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, a vast remote region recognised for the cultural importance and pristine grandeur of its ancient glaciated landscape.

Take off with Haast Heliservices for a breath-taking scenic flight into an alpine landscape teeming with waterfalls, tarns, glaciers, snow capped peaks and rugged coastline. Land beside a hanging lake in a hidden valley or go further afield to take in Milford Sound or the summits of Mt Aspiring National Park.

Greenstone Helicopters — operating out of Haast and Jackson Bay — have scenic helicopter experiences ranging from heli-surfing to excursions into remote high altitude and coastal locations with landings, picnics and wildlife encounters and the magnificent greenstone boulders of Cascade Plateau.

Learn more about Haast World Heritage Area