The founder of Mount Cook Ski Planes, Harry Wigley, developed an interest in aviation while still at school and started flying in the early 1930’s. He gained his A Class pilots licence in 1935, and also flew with the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
In 1953 while flying tourists around Mount Cook and over the glaciers, Harry Wigley saw the need for a retractable ski which would allow aeroplanes to take off from an airfield and land on snow.
Although fixed skis used for snow takeoffs and landings were in existence, international enquiries confirmed that a retractable ski had not yet been developed. Fixed skis were not practicable at Mount Cook Airfield, where snow remains on the runway for only a limited time during the winter.
Hundreds of hours were spent developing a wheel which protruded through the ski during takeoff and landing at the airfield. The ski was then mechanically lowered during flight to allow landings on the snowfields of the Tasman Glacier.
Harry Wigley piloted an Auster aircraft, the first Ski Plane using a retractable ski on 22 September 1955, with Alan McWhirter as passenger. Another passenger on that historic day was Sir Edmund Hillary.
Over the next few years the concept and design were refined, including hydraulically operated skis with plastic soles were developed. The introduction of the more powerful Cessna 180 allowed the Ski Planes to operate all year round. Today, Mount Cook Ski Planes operate a fleet of Cessna 185 and Pilatus Porter PC6 aircraft.