US to NZ private pilot license conversion

March 3, 2024

I’ve been flying for the past five or so years. In the USA I hold a private pilot license for airplane single engine land and sea, as well as an instrument rating. Since moving to New Zealand about two years ago, I’ve only had the opportunity to fly when I’m back visiting the states – this year I decided to address this and finally get my New Zealand private pilot license.

I’m writing this to chronicle the process of getting my NZ PPL through the “foreign license recognition” path. I took the simple route, deciding only to convert my PPL ASEL, so no instrument rating in New Zealand yet. Getting a pilot license in a new country has been a strange process because it involves learning a whole host of differences: terminology, VFR circuit techniques, chart symbology, radio communication phraseology. I find that it puts you in a strange place of second-guessing: I’ve been certificated since 2019, but there were times during the process I felt the unsureness of a student pilot again.

The overview of overseas pilot license recognition can be found in this document. It’s quite readable - I won’t reiterate all of it here, but I’ll talk about the parts that applied to me.



First, you need to pass a BFR. The NZ BFR requirements can be found in CAA form 24061-11 and should look quite familiar to US pilots. There’s nothing in there you wouldn’t expect, and maneuvers like stalls and steep turns don’t care what country you’re in. The things that stuck out to me as “obviously different” in New Zealand are mostly knowledge components:

Weather information

In New Zealand, MetService (the national meteorological service of New Zealand) provides the forecasts, MSL charts, etc. that you’d expect for flight planning, but they do so through a service called GoPreflight, which is owned by a private company called Aeropath. The basic information is free, but if you want “advanced” functionality (e.g. displaying SIGMETs overlaid on the map, conversion of UTC to local time) you’ll need to pay a private company. There is no equivalent to Actually, Aeropath is also the only source of visual navigation charts in New Zealand. In the US you can download free digital rasters of navigation charts, whereas in New Zealand you need to pay Aeropath NZ$12 for each sectional.

I’ll take a tangent here to say that this is annoyingly common: services that are fully public / federal in the USA will instead be delegated to either fully private companies or “state-owned enterprises” here in New Zealand. A state-owned enterprise is a company fully owned by the government which has the mandate to provide a government service, but is required to operate in an equally profitable manner to a “normal” private company.

Of course, delegation to private companies isn’t unheard of in the US ( is operated by Leidos), but the US federal government provides a wealth of free-at-time-of-use weather forecasting and aviation services fo the public (even when delivered by a contractor), whereas New Zealand is happy to let private companies take a slice of the pie.

In fact, the Airways Corporation of New Zealand (the entity providing air traffic services across the country and in New Zealand Oceanic airspace) is another state-owned enterprise. Filing a flight plan costs several dollars. Shooting an instrument approach costs several dollars. Transiting controlled airspace costs several dollars. None of these costs are prohibitive, but the American pilot in me thinks that because these services are critical for pilot safety, they should be completely free at time of use.

Anyway, shouts out to the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration and National Weather Service, but I’m not here to complain – it just makes me aware of the resources that American pilots have that we might take for granted.

The pattern

In the states, we prefer a 45° to midfield downwind as our pattern entry. Maybe with a teardrop 500 feet above the pattern. I don’t know if it’s just because that’s what I learned first, but it makes great sense to me.

New Zealand has chosen the “standard overhead join.” There’s an excellent video on the topic here (and, by the way, the NZ CAA’s Good Aviation Practice booklets and videos are of fantastic quality). In short, you start in a left hand orbit over the airport at 500 feet above pattern altitude, and once you decide which runway to use (we’ve got a lot of aerodromes without weather reporting), you descend on the non-traffic side of the airport down to pattern altitude, fly a crosswind leg at pattern altitude, and then fly a standard pattern to land.

It doesn’t sound too complicated, I know, but I’ve found it challenging to pick up. The join starts when you overfly the approach end of the runway you’ll use (assuming the runway uses a standard left-hand pattern), and you always end up flying a crosswind at pattern altitude. While you always should have taken the time to ensure you’re aware of where everyone else is in the circuit, the fact that the procedure includes putting yourself right in the position where departing aircraft are climbing into feels wrong. This is mitigated of course by the fact that you have a very clear view of the whole aerodrome out of the left window (when you’re joining for a standard left pattern).

Right patterns are a little bit different: you overfly the departure end, descend and perform a teardrop on the non-traffic side, and then enter a right crosswind.

The standard overhead join isn’t required at all aerodromes, but it’s recommended. You can find a visual aid here for standard patterns and here for right-hand patterns.

The southern hemisphere, in general

The compass errors flip when you cross the equator. In the southern hemisphere, the “ONUS” acronym is used for compass turning errors: overshoot north, undershoot south. Acceleration errors are also flipped: “SAND” indicates that the compass will indicate a turn to the south while accelerating, and to the north while decelerating.

In the Southern hemisphere, cyclonic rotation (around an area of low pressure) is clockwise. Anticyclonic rotation, around an area of high pressure, is counterclockwise. Now that I’ve had to learn both directions, I feel it’s less likely than ever that I’ll recall them correctly :).

Meet the requirements

NZ AC61-3 outlines the private pilot license experience requirements, but in short, they are: 50 hours of flight, 15 hours dual, 15 hours solo, 5 hours dual instrument, and 5 hours of terrain and weather awareness. Most US pilots, barring some fresh PPLs without much instrument time, will meet all of these requirements except for terrain and weather awareness. That was my situation.

The terrain and weather awareness requirement is split into two parts: at least 2 hours of low flying, and at least 2 hours of terrain and weather awareness training, with the sum total at least 5 hours. Low flying in New Zealand is considered to be anything 500 feet or below. There are dedicated low flying zones in New Zealand that exist for the purpose of practicing to meet these requirements. Terrain and weather awareness training is ridge crossings, operating in valley systems, turning within confined areas, etc.

Many of those 5 hours of LF/TWA practice are performed in the “bad weather configuration,” (aka poor visibility configuration) which is a term that doesn’t really exist in the US. The purpose of a bad weather configuration is to allow the pilot to slow down significantly while maintaining a similar sight picture to cruise flight. For a 172, the bad weather configuration is 75 knots at flaps 20°. This is intended to allow pilots a bit more time when they find themselves caught out by deteriorating weather. The weather is very dynamic in New Zealand and we spend a lot of time flying outside of controlled airspace, hence the increased focus on “self-rescue” from these situations.

I enjoyed the LF/TWA time, partially because flying low and slow over New Zealand is stunning, especially out near the coasts, and partially because I haven’t intensely practiced that kind of “seat of the pants” flying since my initial training back in 2019. After years of instrument flight, my flying in the bad weather configuration wasn’t immediately great: I had to focus on making much more frequent power corrections to maintain the desired 75 knots. At that speed, too, all turns require a pretty decent power increase to maintain the vertical component of lift without losing too much speed.

My pattern work was also pretty rough at first after many months away from a plane at all, but we sorted that out. It’s good to be humbled, even 300ish hours in.

Fit and proper person

The New Zealand CAA requires that you pass a “fit and proper person” check before they issue you a license. This means submitting a criminal and driving record history for all countries you have lived in for more than 6 months in the preceding 5 years.

The only funny bit of this is that the CAA wants to see your federal criminal history if you’ve lived in the US, meaning you need to apply to the FBI for an Identity History Summary Check (“rap sheet”). If you’re requesting this from outside the US, you need to mail a physical copy of your fingerprints to the FBI. It took a few weeks for my parcel to get from New Zealand to the FBI, but once they received it, the FBI fairly quickly provided me with a PDF stating that they don’t have any records on me, which I included in my application to the CAA.

Other weird things

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some differences that stuck out to me that don’t fit in another section.

Logbooks in New Zealand must be “an approved bound book with the details entered in indelible ink” per NZ 61.29. You must keep it with you when you fly (not the case in the US). I only keep a digital logbook in the US, so I was required to print out a summary from my digital logbook and affix it permanently to my NZ paper logbook. The NZ logbook I have differentiates between day and night time for logging PIC and dual received, whereas in my US logbook I keep total time, night, dual received, and PIC separately. I was able to export my US logbook and do some manipulation in Google Sheets to calculate the required values to carry forward to my NZ logbook.

Operating in the airspace in New Zealand feels quite different as well. I haven’t done any instrument flying yet in New Zealand, so I can’t comment on that, but when I fly any reasonable distance under VFR in the US I request flight following services from air traffic control. Most of my flying in the US is within controlled airspace, and when you’re on flight following, ATC will pass you from facility to facility, ensuring someone’s always aware of where you are and what traffic is around you. New Zealand, on the other hand, does not have any class E airspace! Within the boundaries of the country it’s only C, D, and G. This essentially means that outside the immediate vicinity of a large airport, you’re on your own. So instead of talking to your nearest TRACON, you’ll talk to FISCOM. FISCOM is a non-control service that can provide you things like weather and NOTAMs, relay clearances, take position reports, and adjust SARTIME (“search and rescue time”). Proper practice in New Zealand outside of controlled airspace is to make semi-regular position reports to FISCOM, as well as to file an initial SARTIME that is just a bit beyond your first estimated time of landing. You can amend it in the air after each stop on a cross-country flight. If you hit SARTIME before canceling your flight plan, they’ll try to get in touch with you for 10 minutes before activating the national Rescue Coordination Centre. Your position reports to FISCOM will be used to inform the search and rescue effort. You’re also assigned a squawk code at the time of filing your flight plan, so I assume that in some parts of the country at least your Mode S / ADS-B output would be used to help find you as well. It’s not clear to me how integrated ADS-B is in New Zealand airspace, but an ADS-B out mandate applies in all controlled airspace, so the technology must be there in some places.

Apart from chatting to FISCOM, in New Zealand we have Common Frequency Zones (CFZs) and Mandatory Broadcast Zones (MBZs). CFZs are non-regulatory, whereas MBZs are associated with regulatory requirements. They’re what they sound like: you’re requested/required to broadcast your positions and intentions on a regular basis.

This excerpt from the Auckland South VNC provides an example of the outlines of class C airspace (Auckland at 2500), a CFZ (Hauraki Gulf), an MBZ (Whenuapai during non-ATS hours), and class D airspace (Whenuapai during ATS hours).

You’ll also note the area marked as “T159 Whangaparaoa.” This is another unique bit of New Zealand flying: these are VFR transit lanes, cut out of controlled airspace, that revert to class G during the day. So between the surface and 1200 feet you can fly along the east side of Whenuapai airspace without needing clearance to enter the control zone. You still need to be broadcasting, though, since you’re inside the MBZ. The existence of class-G-within-class-D-but-with-mandatory-broadcast seems needlessly confusing to me in a regulatory sense, but maybe the Whenuapai control tower just doesn’t want to deal with the huge amount of traffic doing scenics along Auckland’s north shore.

Submit your documents

After 8.7 hours of flight time, a New Zealand BFR completed, 5 hours of low flying and terrain awareness training, and a bunch of photocopies of my existing documents, I was ready to request my NZ PPL.

This section exists solely to say that I was really impressed with the NZ Civil Aviation Authority’s speed. I sent them a few emails during the process of meeting my requirements to verify which documents they wanted to see, and they responded to each within one business day. When I submitted my PPL application, they issued it within 18 hours. Fantastic work.