Exploring Franz Joseph Glacier by Helicopter

We knew the West Coast weather was unpredictable so we booked to stay in Franz Joseph for three days.  Initially, we booked a guided tour of the glacier which included caves and a scenic helicopter flight up. Fortunately, after two days of cancellations due to bad weather, we received a call from the Franz Joseph helicopter company that they had a small window for a 30 minute scenic flight. We threw on some warm clothes, filed into our rental car (thanks Omega) and darted into town for our pre-flight debrief.

Helicopter on Franz Joseph
The Helicopter Line on top of the Fox Glacier.

It was cloudy, and misty rain hung low over the fields and bush. We could barely make out the glacier from Franz Joseph township.  We found a car park down by the heliport and raced up to the tour office.  After a short wait, we were debriefed about helicopter safety and the office girl called in the first helicopter – “six people for a 20 minute flight to Fox Glacier Horse.”  He responded immediately with a “be there in five, weather looks like it may hold for an hour. Send them down… over.” 

                  Helicopter pad Franz Joseph           

The helicopter pad in Fox Glacier village and a shot inside the helicopter with Horse our pilot.

We were ushered over the road and down to the heliport; we could hear the thumping of the rotor blades. The chopper came screaming over the dense bush and out over the paddocks lining up a small 3x3m mound of gravel to land.  Within seconds the chopper was flaring right above us and gently touching down. We all piled in and belted up, excited but scared at the same time.

We took off quickly as Horse, our pilot, started the introductions.  People were the size of ants and cars the size of toy cars in a matter of seconds as we started to climb toward the bush covered valley wall that led up to Fox Glacier.

 Inside Helicopter Franz Joseph

Inside the helicopter climbing up toward the Franz Joseph.


Fox Glacier from helicopter

Photo of Fox Glacier from the back of our helicopter flight


Helicopter Tour Franz Joseph Photos from our helicopter tour of Franz Joseph.

There was very little turbulence and it was cosy in the cabin.  All we could hear was the scream of the jet engine and the occasional commentary from Horse.  We banked around to the left of the glacier and up over the fog.  It was a totally different world; huge black rocks protruded up from blinding white snow.  We could see Mt Cook and other mountains in the distance.  Five minutes ago we were in summer, now we’re in a winter wonderland.

Towards Mt Cook Photo looking toward Mt Cook above Fox Glacier

 Top of Fox Glacier

Photo at the top of Fox Glacier after we landed. Part of the guided helicopter tour.


Vast open space Fox Glacier

Vast open space on top of Fox Glacier.


Helicopter pilot Fox Glacier

Our helicopter pilot Horse printing photos that we didn’t buy. But you should!


Front seat Helicopter Line

Time to go.  Front seat of the Helicopter Line chopper.

After taking in the fantastic views, we landed and disembarked for photos and a snowball fight. Horse jumped out, opened the doors and led us away from the tail rotors.  The engines wound down and we stumbled around in fresh snow up to our knees in places. The sky was bright blue, the sun was shining and the air was crisp and clean.  We took endless photos and branded each other with snowballs.  Our pilot took a couple of group photos before we headed back to the helicopter.  I was offered a seat in the front on the way back.  I couldn’t get in fast enough!

Video taking off from the top of Fox Glacier after our tour.

The engine started to scream as the blades bit into the air. We lifted off, and swung to the left. The nose of the chopper pitched down and we started to speed forward.  The snow flashed a few metres below us until it started to fall away in to wrinkled slits of snow, like rolled pastry.  It was the start of the glacier where the thick ice pulls away and slips down the valley.   The helicopter banked hard left and hard right, the blades punched the air as we were all pressed into our seats from to G-Forces.  The Glacier opened up into giant chunks of ice, the size of three story buildings. We could see down crevasses that seemed bottomless.  The ice was white, arctic blue and occasionally laced with black dust – probably gravel.  It was an amazing sight.

Flying back to base
Flying back to base. Photos of the bottom of Fox Glacier.

The glacier flow narrowed quickly until it was consumed by rocks and river gravel.  We flew beneath fast moving clouds surrounded by near vertical mountain walls of bush and rock.  The clouds were alive, angrily changing shape around us. The office radioed in asking what the weather was like. “We may get one more flight in” Horse responded.  “But it looks like it’s going to get nasty up here!” We were very lucky. We had patiently waited two days and on our last day, we were given a short window to see the glacier.  It was fantastic!

Before we knew it we were landing.  The next and potentially last lot of people were standing at the gravel landing mound waiting their turn.  Other helicopters were buzzing around, squeezing in as many flights as they could before the weather closed in.  We lightly touched down on the skids, took off our headphones and jumped out.  Everyone was grinning from ear to ear.  Tick! Glacier can now be checked off the bucket list. I had always wanted to visit the glaciers, especially with the speed they are disappearing.  It cost around $230 for an adult and was worth every cent. Thank you to Horse and Helicopter Line for a great experience – helicopters.co.nz