Taranaki’s McNicholas brothers and their dreams of flying

Forty years ago New Plymouth’s skyline was dotted with a group of plucky friends on hang gliders and microlights. John and Gerard McNicholas have captured their adventures in a book called Dreams of Flying. Taryn Utiger caught up with John to hear about their extraordinary adventures.

Hi John, thanks for chatting with us. Can you tell us a little bit about your book Dreams of Flying? 
Dreams of Flying is an anthology of short stories written by my brother Gerard and I who flew hang gliders and microlights back in the late 70s and 80s.

We were raised on the rugged West Coast of New Zealand in our hometown, New Plymouth and were lucky to have Mt Taranaki on our door step. With our sight set on its mighty high peak, it’s no wonder the sky soon became our next destination.

Gerard soaring above the sand at Back Beach

We often reminisce about the crazy adventures we had and thank God we’re still here to tell the tales. We hope our readers can enjoy sharing in our experience of courage, determination, brotherhood and a true spirit for flying. 

“Taking off from sand dunes, and later tall cliffs, was the most exhilarating feeling you could ever imagine…”

John McNicholas

How did this start for you?
After following my brother’s flying closely for a few years at Back Beach, I was sixteen when I gave hang gliding my first attempt.

Landing in the ocean on my third flight wasn’t exactly encouraging and it took me a few years to get back to it. Had I not – it would have been my life’s biggest regret. Taking off from sand dunes, and later tall cliffs, was the most exhilarating feeling you could ever imagine.

John flying on the wind at Pukerua Bay

We all wanted to learn as much as possible quickly so becoming a skilled pilot in different weather conditions was vital. Although very dangerous, knowing how to read the wind and navigate my wings helped me feel calm and in control.

The excitement and confidence it gave me sparked my passion for flying and the beginning of a new chapter. 

Some of your adventures took place on gliders that you made yourself. How did you learn to make gliders?
Most of our kites were built at Pacific Kites in Auckland, otherwise they were built in the flat bedrooms and hallways. In fact very few came from overseas in those days.

The modifications were mostly focused around transitioning from hang gliding to microlights using fixed wing kites and adding an under-carriage and motor. Many of the initial flights were trial and error and strangely not too different to the first powered flights by Richard Pearse’s in 1903. 

Dreams of Flying has been called “fascinating” by reviewers

What would you say was your greatest flying achievement?
My greatest flying achievement wasn’t really one event, but more a collection of flights or times when you feel really capable to handling most conditions.

“We did run into near misses when we pushed the limits. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a heavy landing or crash at some point…”

JOHN MCNICHOLAS

I guess just the pure joy of flying when the conditions are really smooth and you are able to soar and dive and circle without any concern for yourself because you’ve finally mastered the kite.

Gerard and others flew from Back Beach to Oakura and also flew long distances cross country at sites like Te Mata Peak in Hawke’s Bay. 

John now paints the landscapes he once flew above

Did you ever have any close calls or major accidents? 
We did run into near misses when we pushed the limits. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a heavy landing or crash at some point.

I crashed once when my mind was completely somewhere else instead of concentrating on my take off. You need to be switched on at all times especially on take- off and landings. 

Can you tell us a favourite flying memory? 
I recall once when I couldn’t actually land because the wind got up so strong. It was at Paekakariki and the wind changed from 21 knots to 35 knots really quickly.

I had to fly a mile out to sea and do a downward run to the hills to lose height. After that and being closer to the ground, I had this fun flight of free flying with wing overs and 360 spins that was exhilarating. 

An unexpected landing in the ocean nearly stopped John from flying, but boy he’s glad he got back up again.

What did you learn from your flying adventures? 
I learnt to trust my skills and my kite equally. To have confidence is actually really important and a belief in your skills and yourself. But I also flew with an assurance that God was looking out for me with a prayer said at every site. Seemed to have worked as I’m still here.

The book centres on your adventures in the 1970s and 80s. What has life been like for you and Gerard since then?
Gerard got into sail planes (big gliders) at Drury near Ardmore in 1986 and then in Australia in 2000 -2004 he went solo in powered aircraft. He was going to buy get a Tiger Moth but it ended being too expensive; so stayed with gliding.

He now kite surfs using foiling and describes the sport as being addictive as the experience is much like low level flying. I have taken a more relaxed pastime in painting contemporary New Zealand landscapes

A review of Dreams of Flying, published by Aviation News

Do you still take to the air? 
No, but there are still a few pilots from that time here in New Plymouth who still fly occasionally. 

If people would like to purchase your book, where can they get it from?  You can email filmcraft@xtra.co.nz or contact Poppies bookstore at 7 King st, New Plymouth.