The men who pilot the helicopters on missions which often save lives do not consider themselves heroes. They reckon it’s the people they rescue who are the heroes.
WORDS LIZ FRENCH and CATHERINE BLACKWELL / PHOTOS LOGAN DAVEY / Supplied by Philips Search and Rescue Trust.
This year, so far, more than 20 missions per month have been flown by the Trustpower TECT Rescue Helicopter from the Bay of Plenty base at Tauranga Hospital, 40 missions monthly by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter based at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton. That’s a lot of people air lifted from accidents, rescued in the wilderness, transferred from one hospital to another; a lot of lives saved by a service which relies for over 50% of its funding on sponsorship and community contributions. It costs $1.2million a year to run the Bay of Plenty operation, near $2.2million for the Waikato-King Country one.
The Philips Search and Rescue Trust was founded by Philips New Zealand Limited after a light aircraft carrying staff from the technology company went missing in the Kaimanawa Ranges near Turangi. Its crash cost two personnel their lives and highlighted the need for a fast efficient air rescue service. The Trust is a charitable organization aiming to provide the highest standard of air ambulance and search and rescue services and is responsible for the North Island’s largest pool of community helicopters with bases in Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo and Palmerston North from where highly trained pilots and crew are always ready for rapid response.
When UNO. visits it is a quiet day at work at the Tauranga Base. The Trustpower TECT helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350B2, sits serenely on its wheel based platform, resplendent in fresh paintwork representing the recent rebranding of its major sponsor. “It took me a while to get used to the new look but I like it now,” says Base Manager and Pilot Liam Brettkelly. Liam is relaxed and jovial as he catches up on office work and chats about life as a rescue helicopter pilot. The Ian Pain Memorial Hangar – named for the family which funded it – includes the office and basic comfortable accommodation. Liam lives close by, a condition of employment for full time pilots, but when relief pilot Todd Dunham from Te Puke is on duty he sleeps on base.
TEN MINUTES TO TAKEOFF
That peaceful scene can change in a flash if the pager Liam has permanently attached to his hip goes off. The chopper (in peak condition from regular service by airline engineers and filled with fuel) is pushed out of the hanger by the tractor, permanently attached and ready to go. The pilot is prepared and in peak condition, verified by the medical he has to have every six months once he turns 40 (Liam is 47).
He has identified his exact destination; if it is a car accident it is likely the police and ambulance are already there. The support team (fully trained and with all the equipment they may need for this particular mission) arrive. In just ten minutes from the call – usually from Ambulance Communications in Auckland who take the 111 calls – the rescue helicopter takes off.
There are a few variables. It may be stormy or night or both.
The Tauranga helicopter flies by VFR – Visual Flight Rules which means the crew wear night vision goggles. But if the weather is murky Liam has to make the call whether the risk is greater than
the reward. He explains that their usual benchmark for visibility is 20kms even though the legal minimum is less than half that.
A spotlight is not very effective in rugged terrain in thick fog.
“New Zealand helicopter rescue has an excellent safety record,” Liam points out.
Liam has been pilot/manager of the Tauranga operation since its inception in June 2000. His aviation career followed five years as a motorcycle mechanic. When he was working as an aircraft engineer in Taupo he trained in flying helicopters, the start of a lifelong love affair with them. He flew scenic flights over the Southern Alps glaciers in a Jet Ranger, then progressed to twin engine Squirrels and was flying for the Helicopter Line when the opportunity came to relocate to Tauranga. Liam and his wife Rachel needed no persuasion; perfect place, perfect job.
It must take a certain type to thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with every mission. Liam plays it down but admits that even after 14 years in the job there is a quickening of the pulse when the pager goes. “Our constant training ensures we have the drill absolutely down pat, but that shot of adrenaline definitely focuses the mind.”
There’s plenty to focus on in the long coastline and often rugged hinterland in the Trustpower TECT Recue Helicopter’s patch which is loosely from Waihi to East Cape. The missions they fly range from emergency responses to accidents when the crew includes a St John Ambulance team specifically trained for helicopter rescue, or hospital transfer where a flight nurse, doctor or paramedic has to be able to keep people alive at 5,000 feet in motion and turbulence. In search and rescue operations the police with be assisting in location and ‘spotting’.
When asked what he likes best about a job where excitement seems built in Liam refers to one piece of equipment which has made his helicopter more effective and honed his skills and teamwork. The Port of Tauranga Rescue Winch is permanently attached on the helicopter; on the left hand side. Liam flies on the right. That means that once nearing position the winch operator – the very experienced Bill McNeilly – starts running the cable out, and guiding (via headpiece communication) Liam who is flying blind the last 50 metres to the rescue spot. Liam has to position the chopper exactly and hold it there while a stretcher is winched down; rescue completed and winched back up. “We’ve had to winch a few people off the Mount, walkers going into cardiac arrest for instance, and it’s pretty exacting and exciting.”
Among all the lives saved there must be some that can’t be. Liam acknowledges that it can be gutting, especially if it is a child, but he has to accept it as part of the role. He has a job to do and every challenge, both physical and emotional, is part of the day’s work.
His counterpart in Hamilton is equally down to earth in his approach.
Grant Bremner has been a pilot for the Hamilton based Westpac Rescue Helicopter for 27 years, so it’s safe to say that he loves his job! He does less flying now than in the past, as his position requires him to oversee the aviation component and all flight operations at the base.
Grant is from a family with a history of aviation and flew planes as a hobby in the 1970s. But it was while working with an agricultural helicopter operator carrying out general helicopter duties as a pilot that he began some rescue helicopter work. “It was a bit of a sideline for the business in Taupo to start with,” he explains.
“As we had helicopters, we started using them to help with search and rescue missions. But it wasn’t formalized until after the big operation involving searching for a Philips New Zealand aircraft.
They provided the foundations for the Philips Search and Rescue Trust and it grew from there.”
WAIKATO BASE ESTABLISHED
In 1987, when the Trust was approached by the Waikato DHB to position a dedicated helicopter in the Waikato, Grant flew the first helicopter up from Taupo and landed it on the tennis courts at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, the area which has become the base known as Jennian Hangar.
It houses a state-of-the-art Kawasaki BK117 helicopter which was bought by the Trust in 2012 and among its many attributes has a 600lb rescue winch, night vision capability and the ability to carry large fuel loads allowing for long distance flights. The service’s name also changed from Westpac Waikato Air Ambulance to Westpac Rescue Helicopter, Waikato-King Country. Westpac is the principal sponsor of the helicopter supported by several other local Waikato companies and the Friends of the Rescue Helicopter. “When we received the new helicopter, we spent a significant amount of time being trained to fly that particular type of helicopter and we also now carry a crewman trained to operate the winch,” says Grant.
Along with trained paramedics, crew members and sometimes police officers, the helicopter is required for search and rescue missions as well as attending traumas that require quick transfers to hospital. In rural and remote areas especially, this is a necessary utility for the ambulance service. Another large part of the job is inter-hospital transfers for patients in intensive care, cardiac wards etc, where they need to travel with a specially trained nurse and doctor on board.
EVERY DAY IS DIFFERENT
There are three pilots on a 24 hour roster seven days a week. They have to be within five minutes of the base if they are on duty and their pagers go off. Their call outs are controlled by 111 communications centre.
Grant appreciates the diversity of his job. “In New Zealand there are only a limited amount of helicopter pilot positions available so I am pretty lucky to be able to work here and be home most nights. In this job I get to work with professionally trained people, help people in need, and fly a helicopter that has all the best technology available to the industry.”
Grant found it hard to pick out a specific memorable incident from his many years of service. “Babies have been born in the helicopter. We’ve rescued surfers and boaties off the coast and looked for people in the water. A lot of our work is inter-hospital transfers taking cardiac patients, newborns and intensive care patients to specialist care. Revenue is generated for the Trust by charging the Ministry of Health and ACC for these flights.”
COPING WITH THE TOUGH MISSIONS
The worst side is easier to remember. “We have a good safety record and accidents are extremely rare in the industry. But as with all people involved in the police, fire, ambulance and medical services, we are exposed to some gruelling accidents and emotional situations where people are suffering,” says Grant. “You have to accept it and get on with it. It’s part of the job.”
Grant also doesn’t see himself as a hero. “Absolutely not!” he says, emphatically dismissing the statement with a wave of his hand.
“We are just doing our job. The people we rescue who have had to endure a traumatic incident in their life and have to recover from it are the heroes. Often people we have helped come and visit us and thank us. We’ve even got some ‘frequent fliers’.”
It seems that people can be quite accident prone and he’s not referring to regular inter-hospital transfer patients as you might think!
Most days the ambulance flies on some sort of mission and during downtime the pilots deal with admin and flight prep duties. Weather checks are important too, as the helicopter can’t fly in fog and high winds. Reasonable visibility is required.
HELICOPTERS IN THE BLOOD
Pilot Dan Harcourt has been with the Trust for 11 years, starting in Taupo then transferring to the Waikato base in 2008. Dan has had a long association with helicopters and remembers being flown in and out of the bush as a child when he accompanied his father possum hunting. His uncle had a helicopter and he experienced his first flight at four years old.
Dan only started flying after university and built up his flying hours to 2,000 by cattle mustering in the Kimberley cattle country of northwest Western Australia. His eyes still gleam at the memory of long days working with planes, helicopters, 4WDs and quad bikes on 1,000,000 acre properties that run 50,000 head of cattle. “It was an amazing learning experience with lots of low level flying in wide open spaces,” he remembers.
An important component of each pilot’s job is their continued association with the local communities. They keep the community well informed of what is happening and promote the principal sponsor, Westpac. They constantly interact with service groups, clubs and schools in the area giving presentations and attending fundraising events.
As much as we may admire this dedicated and enthusiastic team of pilots and crew performing such a vital role in our community they insist they are just professionals doing a job. Saving lives just happens to be part of their job description.
To find out how you can support the service you might need one day contact Friends of the Rescue Helicopter 0800 11 10 10 firstname.lastname@example.org