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New role beckons for helicopter legend

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 12:54 25/07/2013
Top dressing
MURRAY WILSON/Fairfax NZ

SPECIALISED BUSINESS: Pilot Kevin Fredrickson top dressing in Manawatu with his Hughes 300.

Alan Beck
JONATHAN CAMERON/Fairfax NZ
ALAN BECK: "We have to improve our image and we have to get people to realise that agricultural production represents two-thirds of New Zealand's wealth."

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Taranaki helicopter hero Alan Beck is on a mission to convince urban New Zealand of the value of agricultural aviation to the country's economy.

Agricultural pilots have been boosting New Zealand agriculture since he was a babe in arms, he says.

Kiwi pilots returning from World War II used their flying skills to spread fertiliser on New Zealand hillcountry farms, turning tough farming country into productive farmland and establishing New Zealand as a world leader in aerial topdressing.

Fast forward to the late 1960s when Beck, then an agricultural contractor, gained his pilot's licence and turned his attention to the next agricultural revolution in aviation - helicopters.

Now he's taking the controls of the New Zealand Agricultural Aviation Association (NZAAA) as Beck Helicopters - the country's oldest agricultural aviation company still in the hands of the original owners - celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Beck, who has a Queen's Service Medal for his services to search and rescue, is concerned that New Zealand's city residents have a poor understanding of the role of agriculture in the economy and of the contribution made by agricultural pilots.

But he does concede the agricultural aviation industry has not always explained its activities to the public. "We have to improve our image and we have to get people to realise that agricultural production represents two-thirds of New Zealand's wealth."

As part of that push to better understanding, the New Zealand Aviation Industry Association (NZAIA) - of which the NZAAA is a subsidiary - developed an integrated environmental safety and flight safety programme called Aircare three years ago.

Aircare is a rigorous code of practice for noise abatement and for the aerial application of agrichemicals, fertiliser and vertebrate toxic agents like 1080.

Beck says not only is Aircare a clear illustration of the industry's commitment to the environment, but it's also a reinforcement of New Zealand's position as an international leader in agricultural aviation. About 70 of New Zealand's 90 or so agricultural aviation operators are accredited to Aircare.

Helicopter Association International, with more than 2500 member organisations in 70 countries, is so impressed by Aircare that it wants to be able to use it.

"Our cutting-edge policy is far ahead of anything that's available in the US," Beck said. "New Zealand is well ahead in terms of compliance and codes of practice."

He predicts regional councils will increasingly expect agricultural aviators to be accredited to Aircare because it ensures waterways are protected from contamination by fertilisers and sprays.

Backing calls by Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment Jan Wright for the Department of Conservation to increase the use of 1080 for possum control, Beck says laying the poison by helicopter has improved immensely since the somewhat indiscriminate methods of 30 years ago.

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"It'll always be an emotional topic and there's a lot of misinformation about it. 1080 has done an amazing job on the mountain [Mt Taranaki]. Tourists can't believe the number of birds up there when I fly them over it. You can see pigeons and tui. The rebound in birdlife is phenomenal."

Banding of kaka, tui and morepork before a 1080 drop by Beck Helicopters near Tuatapere in Southland showed none had died.

He's full of praise for the efforts Taranaki farmers have made to clean up the province's rivers. Having had a bird's eye view of them from a helicopter for 40 years, he believes they're in the best state in the country.

"If people could see them from my point of view, they'd say the same. There's been a huge change in the rivers from where I see them. On mountain flights, I always fly over them to show passengers how clean they are."

He points out the industry's environmental awareness is not limited to the establishment of Aircare. Beck says the use of GPS and the on-farm nutrient management tool, Overseer, has also brought huge improvement to agricultural aviation.

As well as documenting standards for safe environmental practice, Aircare also deals with pilot safety. He says agricultural pilots must be constantly alert to hazards in their daily operations - short airstrips, improvised landing areas, obstacles, wires and changing weather conditions.

While the sector had "a brutally high" fatality rate, a pilot safety initiative had led to four years without a fatality, the longest in its history.

As NZAAA chairman for the next two years, Beck wants to see improvements in both the profitability and the profile of agricultural aviation.

"Instead of being seen as dung dusters, we want to be recognised as professional aerial applicators. We're not pouring dust around the hills. It's a specialised business that requires some of the most demanding flying imaginable."

- Taranaki Daily News

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