Helicopter hero Alan Beck revisits wirestrike site 26 years on

CAA safety investigation manager Jim Burtenshaw, left, presented a Down to the Wire certificate to Tarata sheep and beef ...
Sue O'Dowd/FAIRFAX NZ.

CAA safety investigation manager Jim Burtenshaw, left, presented a Down to the Wire certificate to Tarata sheep and beef farmers Davie Brocklehurst and sons Shane, with dog Nel, and Jamie for removing wires from their farm. Second from left is Alan Beck, who struck a wire when he was flying on the Brocklehursts' Tarata farm in 1990.

Taranaki helicopter legend Alan Beck has made an emotional journey to the scene of his only crash in 45 years of flying - in the same helicopter.

As New Zealand Agricultural Aviation Association chairman, the Eltham man is leading the national Down to the Wire campaign to encourage farmers to remove wires from their farms because they pose a hazard to agricultural pilots.

In 1990 Beck struck a wire strung across a valley just seconds after taking off in his helicopter to spray weeds on a Tarata farm, east of Inglewood. Neither he nor the farm owner, Dave Brocklehurst, who had recently bought the property, knew the wire was there.

Helicopter pilot Alan Beck wants this wire spanning a valley at Omoana, 35km east of Eltham, removed.
Sue O'Dowd/FAIRFAX NZ.

Helicopter pilot Alan Beck wants this wire spanning a valley at Omoana, 35km east of Eltham, removed.

Flying into the early morning sun, Beck said he could not see the wire. "Then - bang!"

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It wrapped around the tail rotor of his Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, so he dumped his load of spray, headed for a flat patch of ground to land and was able to walk away from the wreckage - albeit with a broken back. 

The pilot who completed the spraying job told him there were 13 wires strung around the farm. 

Today all but one of the wires on the Brocklehursts' 2000-hectare sheep and beef farm have gone. The remaining one which the family thought would pose no hazard because "a helicopter wouldn't be going there" will also be taken down after Beck advised them an aircraft could in fact fly into it. 

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) safety investigation manager Jim Burtenshaw, of Wellington, joined Beck on a flight to the farm to present Dave Brocklehurst and sons Shane and Jamie with a Down to the Wire certificate of appreciation for getting rid of the wires. 

Twenty-six years after his crash, Beck was surprised the memory was still raw when he spoke to the trio. "It was a bit of an emotional spike for me to go back there and talk to them about it," he said. 

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Shane Brocklehurst, who vividly remembers seeing Beck's wrecked helicopter when he came home from school, said the family had removed wires from their farm because they wanted to create a safe working environment for pilots.

Dave Brocklehurst said he'd noticed less animal damage to farm fences since they'd started running electric fence wires along fence-tops. "An animal will only touch it once. So the fences will last much longer - and you save on insulators too."

Beck said the Brocklehursts' removal of the wires was part of a groundswell of action by Taranaki farmers to take wires down. "Farmers have jumped on board the Down to the Wire campaign." 

Burtenshaw said Down to the Wire was a great industry-led initiative because wirestrike in New Zealand had killed 29 pilots. 

He was pleased to see farmers supporting the campaign which both CAA and Federated Farmers have endorsed. It is dedicated to Whanganui helicopter pilot Peter Robb who died after hitting an overhead electric fence feeder wire while doing aerial spraying in 2014.

This week CAA withdrew health and safety charges laid against the trustees of Takiri Trust which owned the farm where Robb died. In a statement, the trustees said they accepted Robb's death was caused by their failure to bring down the electric feed-out wire and they had not taken every practicable step under the Health and Safety in Employment Act to avoid the tragedy.

Now they want to encourage farmers to bring down unsafe wires and are supporting campaigns to heighten farmer awareness of the danger of wires. They said farmers should never think such tragedies could not happen to them.

CAA director Graeme Harris said Robb's accident was a sad reminder safety was the responsibility of farmers as well as pilots. Eight of 28 wirestrikes that had occurred since 2000 were fatal.

Burtenshaw said he wanted to use the Taranaki momentum around Down to the Wire to take the campaign to other regions. "CAA is backing the campaign hard because it's about saving lives," he said. 

CAA was approaching ACC to fund the removal of wires from farms by tiger teams - a term originally used for teams set up by the US military to penetrate security as a test of security measures and now used to describe groups called in to fix problems. 

Burtenshaw said his proposal for tiger teams would not only save lives but would also reduce the social cost of wirestrike accidents. 

The cost of a single pilot fatality was $3.8million. Farmers who removed wires not only made their farms safer for pilots but would also never have a fatality on their conscience.

The average of one wirestrike fatality a year was a tragedy for the pilot's family, the family who owned the property where the accident occurred and for investigators, he said. 

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