There is a brief switch between aeronautical code and regular speech as Richie McCaw pilots his blue Eurocopter AS350 up from the tarmac of Christchurch Airport.
‘This lever on the front moves you up and down and all these other dials are meant to tell you something,’ he jokes, before returning to dialogue with the control tower.
Playing down the fact that he scored 94 per cent — 24 per cent above the average pass rate — in his six flying exams, the retired All Blacks skipper heads towards the scarred city skyline.
Open wounds of the devastating 2011 earthquake, which killed 185 people, are still visible, and, swerving to a stomach-churning angle, McCaw noses in his 1.2-tonne vessel over the empty shell of Lancaster Park.
‘There she is, just sitting there,’ says the double World Cup winner. ‘We’ll end up spewing if we go any further and someone will have to clean it up — not my idea of fun!’
The stadium hosted the British and Irish Lions in 2005, when McCaw starred in a four-Test whitewash over Sir Clive Woodward’s touring party.
Due to structural damage from the disaster, which registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, it remains closed, and as a result the city has lost the capacity to host one of next summer’s Tests.
But Rugby League Park — temporary home for the local Crusaders franchise — will stage a midweek game and McCaw hopes the Lions’ busy touring schedule will make them easy prey.
‘What we want is for the franchises to bash the hell out of them to make it easy for the All Blacks lads,’ says McCaw. ‘England’s results in Australia have spiced up world rugby a bit!’
Heading south at a rate of knots, McCaw points out a vast pile of stone that will be removed and replaced by two new high schools. But on the ground, the city still has the feel of a ghostly construction site.
‘You see that stack of white rubble — that was the stadium that hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1974,’ says McCaw. ‘There are constantly new buildings popping up now and you’re just left thinking, ‘Jeez, where did that one come from?’
Spotting an opportunity, McCaw invested in a shingle quarry business, with the government estimating a total rebuilding cost of more than £20billion.
The 35-year-old has resisted the lure of commentary and will watch next year’s Lions tour from afar, having signed out at Twickenham last October with the Webb Ellis Cup. He has also invested in Christchurch Helicopters, and next month will travel to Rio to watch his hockey-playing fiancee, Gemma Flynn, compete for New Zealand in the Olympics.
‘It’s a scary thing when you get to the end of 15 years playing and suddenly think, ‘Now what’?’ says McCaw. ‘To be honest, for 12 of those years I had no idea what I’d do and just hoped that something would come along. This has been really important for me.
‘Sunday mornings are a lot better now. The Super Rugby season is a tough grind and I certainly haven’t missed that. I don’t miss being on the physio table and I thought it would be a lot stranger watching the ABs.
‘There was a little bit of an ‘Ooff!’, watching them run out at first, but you can get yourself into all sorts of problems if you sit there looking back.’
Continuing along the dramatic cliff-lined coastline, we weave through the 1,500ft peaks of the Port Hills, where the single-lane roads remain closed because of fallen rocks.
‘I still go running up here sometimes,’ says McCaw. ‘I like to think this place is my little secret.’
There are batches of shiny new warehouses down below, constructed to relocate industry post-earthquake, and a shopping centre that has been built entirely from shipping containers.
Recalling his own experience of the tragedy, which struck at 12.51pm local time, McCaw talks through the damage that was caused to his home in central Christchurch. ‘I was having lunch in Merivale Shopping Mall with Kieran Read at the time,’ he says.
‘I was on crutches and the impact actually knocked me off my seat. Back at my house later, liquefaction started to come in the front door and I thought ‘S***, what do I do?’ I was hopping around on one leg to get it boarded up. People didn’t moan, though.
They just got on with it and you really saw the good side of human nature.’
On the outskirts of the city, new homes have been built en masse. They have moved to ground less prone to earthquakes.
In-flight, there is also a glimpse of his brother-in-law’s farm, which has converted from forestry to dairy because of significantly higher yields; £2,400 per hectare compared to £270.
The iconic No 7 has one of the most marketable surnames in the sport but there are no plans to step into the world of coaching.
‘Sometimes it’s easy to stick with what you know but I don’t think I’d get the same satisfaction as playing,’ he says. ‘It would probably frustrate me. You can’t leave the game for too long because you’ve got to keep up with the changes… but never say never.’