Rural airfield near Matamata becomes New Zealand's busiest airfield as teenagers learn to fly

A rural airfield near Matamata has suddenly become the busiest in New Zealand, as 70 teenagers get put through their paces at flying school.

In the space of two weeks, the budding aviators, all aged between 16 and 19, will go from having never sat in a cockpit before, to the lifelong memory of their first solo flight.

"We can easily tell the enthusiasm and the joy of having achieved the first solo," says Walsh Memorial Scout Flying School director John Hamilton.

The students pay $1900 for the course, though some are funded by scholarships. Some have come because flying is in their blood.

"My family has quite a heavy aviation background, and I thought I want to do that with my life and I thought this was a great opportunity for kids my age," says student Daniel Parker.

But others have no experience at all.

"I don't come from a very aviation-heavy background, it just stemmed from a fascination of seeing planes at the airport," explains student Hugh Lee.

But regardless of background, they're all now well and truly hooked.

"I feel like going up there is my little sanctuary, my safe place. It feels like you're in a different world," says Christopher Tang.

It's not just the practicalities of flying the teens are learning. Punctuality is drilled into them.

"Early is on time, on time is late!" repeats Tang, like a mantra.

There's also plenty of duties around the camp, as well as friendship, teamwork, and some vital personal development.

"I've learned now that my best isn't always going to be the best. There's always going to be someone better than me, I'm always going to be better than someone. That's just how life goes," says student Briony Wisutthisri.

"As long as I'm doing my best and I'm content with what I'm doing, then I shouldn't have anything else to worry about."

With nearly 700 take-offs and landings every day, this Matamata Aerodrome is temporarily New Zealand's busiest airfield.

Even pre-COVID, Auckland Airport averaged just 480 a day.

And with COVID continuing to wreak havoc on the aviation industry, instructor James Hillson believes Matamata could even be up there with the world's busiest.

"I was in Chicago, which technically is probably the second busiest airport in the world, and we were the only ones landing, this one Air New Zealand plane. And now, you look out and there's a plane taking off every twenty seconds sometimes, so yeah it's busy!" he says.

The disruption is something Hillson knows first-hand: he was recently made redundant from Air New Zealand.

"I'm probably one of the lucky ones at the moment. I still can come out, I'm still flying, still keeping current," he says.

In the 55 years the Walsh Memorial Scout Flying School has been running, around 30 percent of the students have gone on to fly professionally.

Parker, Tang, and Lee all plan on going into the Air Force and getting their private pilot licenses.

Hamilton is confident this new generation of pilots will have what it takes when the industry starts to recover.

"You've got five years or something before you're at the stage of being hired by an airline," he says.

"The world is going to be looking different in five years' time and it's inconceivable to me that there isn't going to be an aviation sector which is going to be vibrant and attractive to these young people."

But before any of that happens - there's one very important ritual to celebrate that first solo flight: everyone gets dunked with cold water the moment they land.

It's still a summer camp after all.