Home' Greymouth Star : April 22nd 2017 Contents Saturday Afternoon
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6 - Saturday, April 22, 2017
two years after the Cave Creek disaster that
claimed 14 lives.
As calls were made for a dedicated rescue
helicopter, the Commission of Inquiry into the platform
collapse heard that helicopter rescue operations in New
Zealand had not developed systematically. The report sounded
some notes of caution — a helicopter would still be up to two
hours' flying time away from certain areas in South Westland.
And it would be expensive to purchase and run.
But they still managed it - the Canterbury West Coast
Air Rescue Trust, Garden City Helicopters and St John,
at $500,000. A Squirrel helicopter from Christchurch was
stripped and painted.
In April 1997, as debate raged over native logging, the
Coast's own rescue chopper was launched.
Initially it was the West Coast Tranz Rail Rescue
Helicopter, named after its inaugural sponsor. Solid Energy,
and now Coal and Carbon have been the other main sponsors.
Nine-year-old Terry Craze was guest of honour at the
launch, cutting the blue ribbons tied over the helicopter door.
He also was the first to ride in it. Three and a half years prior
Terry owed his life to an air rescue when he was flown by
fixed-wing aircraft from Greymouth after being struck by a
train at Jacksons.
The launch was held at the Recreation Ground, on a site
now occupied by the aquatic centre.
Its first official mission was to Ross to transfer a heart
patient to Greymouth — a trip of 18 minutes, rather than one
hour by road.
In September 1997, Bloc Development started work on
the hangar in Water Walk Road.
The West Coast helicopter started out in Mexico before
coming to New Zealand, where it was the first Trustbank (later
Westpac) rescue helicopter in Christchurch, painted in the
distinctive red and yellow. It got the official registration ZK-
It was in that role that it actually attended Cave Creek,
flying over from Christchurch. Garden City Helicopters
general manager Simon Duncan back then had a day job with
Trustbank. With Neil Scott as pilot, he found Cave Creek on
the map as they were en route. They spotted Greymouth pilot
Chris Cowan 5km in the distance and headed for the hole in
the canopy that was the Cave Creek chasm.
It was, Mr Scott later recalled in the book Lives on the
Line, by Steve Locker-Lampson, horrendous.
Stu Drake, who has crewed the rescue helicopter for the
entire 20 years on the West Coast, first spotted the machine
in the mid-1990s when he was working for DOC, when it was
used to pick up an injured climber on the Copland Pass, south
of Fox Glacier.
In 1997 the machine came to the Coast, with pilot Simon
Fraser at the helm.
"The most memorable missions," says Stu Drake. "The bus
crashes — there have been two."
The first, 20 years ago, was the Kirwee netball team. The
bus brakes failed at Otira. Stu had just finished his winch
training and watched the helicopter leave — he attended in
an ambulance. The second was also at Otira, on December 31,
In 2010 the rescue helicopter crew flew to Pike River,
using the night-vision goggles, to fly out gas samples in wine
cooler bags back to the Mines Rescue station at Rapahoe.
Most unusual? A man who was skiing-paragliding (a
speed skier) at Temple Basin with a tiny parachute, trying to
land like a plane - until he spotted the powerlines. He changed
path and hit the hillside.
The helicopter arrived as darkness fell and could not
risk flying due to the powerlines. So they flew the Alpine Cliff
Rescue team up the hill and they abseiled down to the injured
man. They found him wrapped in his silk chute, still fairly
warm despite the snow, and with only a broken thumb. The
helicopter arrived back in Greymouth at dawn — 12 hours
And the most common job? Medical transfers from
Department of Conservation works officer Mark Nelson
was scoping out the new Paparoa Track 'great walk' a year ago
when things went wrong near the confluence of Cave Stream
and the Pororari River, at Punakaiki.
They had done their health and safety briefing and the
terrain was not as challenging as some they had worked in.
Mark spotted a flat terrace and went for a look. But there was
an optical illusion — a fern made the slope look like a gentle
curve. He peered over the side, and started to slip.
"Early on I committed to just sliding on my butt. I got
1m, and it turned into a cliff."
He fell 3m on to the riverbed, landing with full force on
his right ankle.
"I smashed it up reasonably well. I could hear it clicking,
and thought 'that's not good.'"
His offsider was at the top of the cliff. He managed to
walk 80m to where the canopy thinned. The satellite phone
was used first, but it was fading in and out. The beacon was
not needed as they managed to get a message out on their
Then the rescue helicopter arrived on the scene. Cyclone
Ita had flattened the area, while leaving enough stumps
standing to be troublesome for landing. So instead of landing,
Mark was winched on board after a paramedic had assessed
him. He was in hospital in Greymouth just 10 or 15 minutes
Mark, who says he has been in the bush his whole life,
appreciates the helicopter greatly.
He was involved in search and rescues in the Kaimai
Ranges in the North Island many years ago. During one
rescue, when a man broke a bone, it took about 14 people
working in shifts to carry him out, over seven and a half hours.
"It was a nightmare. I was cold, and more tired than I'd
And the West Coast rescue helicopter?
"It's the best thing since sliced bread. It makes life very,
very easy, not just for the person being rescued, but for the
But many times, there is no beacon or VHF radio to
guide the helicopter crew in, so how do they spot them? The
glint of wreckage, the wave of an arm?
Well, they do spotting courses, first of all in a fixed-wing
plane and then moving on to a helicopter for a second course.
But it's also about "getting your eye in".
Often when someone sees the helicopter they stand and
stare, assuming — because they can see the machine — that
the crew can see them.
In fact, that's not necessarily the case. Wave, Stu Drake
suggests, or use bright objects. Paramedic Kelvin Ritchie says
they were taught to scan right to left — the opposite to how
you read. This makes them slow down, and look carefully.
Simon Fraser was the very first pilot, new to the Coast
from Canterbury. He talks not of the rescues, but the people
who made them so welcome here.
"I felt a bit out on a limb, but people were really, really
hospitable. We had a great time."
It was also the most satisfying flying of his career, he said.
Angus Taylor has piloted the rescue helicopter for eight
He said St John control, the Rescue Co-ordination
Centre or police could call them out. He makes the decision
on whether to fly — and he does occasionally have to refuse,
normally because of low cloud.
"No one's life is more important than my own," he says
The most memorable missions were often the worst, he
says, such as the 2015 Fox Glacier helicopter crash.
When he flies, the patient's head is to the rear, so he is
sitting by their middle and often they are well enough to talk.
Some patients they have picked up several times:
"Generally they're accident prone, we can't blame them".
Angus is adamant they are not heroes — he is a pilot,
doing a job.
Greymouth St John personnel Kelvin Ritchie and Andrew
Ching were the first of the rescue helicopter paramedics on
the West Coast. Kelvin actually started with private helicopter
pilot Chris Cowan, going on rescues in his Hughes 500. By
the time Kelvin stopped two years ago he had racked up 18
years with the rescue machine. Over that time it went from a
daytime operation to 24 hours, thanks to night vision goggles.
"It's amazing, you can see a cellphone or match 5km away
with the goggles."
By helicopter, Hannahs Clearing south of Haast is just
75 minutes away. By road ambulance, it is up to six hours,
with three legs as they transfer patients from ambulance to
The paramedics are quick to praise the role of the ground
crews. Whether it's a medical transfer, bush rescue or road
accident the adrenalin kicks in, Kelvin says. Winch jobs, which
were few and far between, were "really exciting".
One of the most memorable rescues was at Lake
Christabel, where a man had fallen 15m into the lake and
then struggled to shore. It was mid-winter and by the time the
rescue helicopter found him he was very, very cold. Kelvin and
Stu Drake walked about 1km with all their gear to reach him.
They got him into the basket, and found some other trampers
who helped move him to a gap in the canopy from which he
could be winched to safety.
"The whole thing took three to four hours, with lots of
people helping," Kelvin says.
Ian Harvey is the newest paramedic on board, and is six
months into the job.
"It's incredible. To do winch jobs in that sort of
environment is pretty special. And working with guys with 20-
plus years' experience."
When it first came to the West Coast, ACC paid for two
additional St John staff, including Stu Drake. Also on the St
John side have been Andrew Ching, Shelley Klempel, Rodney
Farrant, Colin Thomas, Brian Fancourt, Steve Mann, Glen
Cockburn, Bryan Jamieson, Helen Bennett, Jackie Krammer,
Wayne Ah Sam, Diane McLaughlin, Naomi Kirwan, Linda
Fuller, David Provis, Sarah Shaw, Warren Smith, Kerri
Miedema, Lyn Stepkowski, Pam Dempsey, Mike O'Brien and
Gary Chapman. Anaesthetist and St John adviser Dr Malcolm
Stuart did numerous missions.
Policemen Mike Tinnelly and Al Hendrickson have been
on the winch, and former Ross policeman Peter McCutcheon.
The pilots after Simon Fraser were Mark Read (Tweezers),
who hailed form the venison hunter days on the West Coast,
Brent Wilson (started 2001), Steve Batchelor, and eight years
ago, Angus Taylor.
Relief pilots have included Steve Gibb (QSM for landing
his copter with a smashed foot after a mid-air collision over
Fox Glacier), Nigel Clark (ex 747 captain from Air NZ), Tim
Douglas-Clifford (longest serving pilot with Garden City
Helicopters) and Martin Shaw.
The crew in 2017 is Angus Taylor and Stu Gorrie (pilots),
with winchmen Stu Drake and Tim Robbins.
Over the years there have also been rescue swimmers and
dog handler Rhys Martin, and strong relationships with alpine
cliff rescue at the glaciers and Arthur's Pass.
Stu Drake says he can't praise enough the prime nurses
and GPs in South Westland and northern Buller, as they were
the first at crash scenes; volunteer fire brigades up and down
the Coast who frequently set up safe landing areas at road
accidents and help load patients; search and rescue, rural St
John volunteers, and rural police.
These days, the Greymouth-based helicopter is used more
than ever. March 2017 set a new record for the most hours
flown in a month. The number of missions was also about the
same as the busiest month ever for flights — March 2016.
The increase is because "ambulance dispatch protocols
and patient destination policies have changed, meaning
more frequent use of air ambulances-rescue helicopters, and
advances in technology such as night vision goggles and
improvements in communications have enabled us to get
our patients to the right level of care in the quickest time
to improve their patient outcomes as quickly and safely as
possible," group general manager Simon Duncan says.
Twenty years ago this month, the West Coast rescue helicopter flew
its first mission. To celebrate, LAURA MILLS talked to the crew,
paramedics and the passengers. They shared their stories of near
misses, tragedies, and why it is busier than ever.
PICTURE: Stu Drake
PICTURE: Stu Drake
Training with police dog handler constable
Jessie James, dog and winch operator Mike
Tinnelly, Greymouth, 1998.
Andrew Ching and Stu Drake attend to
a surveyor with a leg injury on the Pike
River Mine access road, August 2008.
The FV Marconi burns, 10 miles offshore
from Greymouth in October 2010.
PICTURE: Stu Drake
Westport air show, 1998.
1996 to 2006 — 70-80 missions a year
2007 to 2012 — 210 missions
2013 — 241 missions
2014 — 211 missions
2015 — 228 missions
2016 — 245 missions
Total (2005 to 2016): 2087
Total patients 2005-2016 — 2019
Average number of missions per month in
Percentage increase 2005-16: 135.5%
Record month — March 2016 with 36
missions flown and 32 patients transported,
including four search and rescues, 11
medical retrievals, eight hospital transfers,
three farm-industrial accidents, six leisure
accidents and one general accident.
1996 Simon Fraser
1999 Mark Read (Tweezers)
2001 Brent Wilson
2006 Steve Batchelor
2009 Angus Taylor
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