A heroic Blenheim pilot injured in the Ward helicopter accident made a split second decision to steer the chopper into the side of a hill to save two lives instead of one, according to man who was among the first on the scene.
Pilot Grant McCallum was a hero, says Tim Smit, one of the hunters who had been out on a heli-hunt when the accident happened on Sunday morning.
McCallum and passenger Sam Kersten were injured when the white Hughes 300 helicopter McCallum was piloting crashed into a gully on a farm at Grassmere, near Ward just before 9am.
The helicopter carrying the two Blenheim men crashed on Bonavaree Farm owned by Doug Avery.
McCallum, in his mid-40s, is the owner of Cloudy Bay Helicopters and a father-of-one who lives at Riverlands.
Kersten, 31, a keen hunter, runs a fencing company and lives in Blenheim with his wife and two young children.
Smit was part of the four-man hunting party stalking deer and pig when the crash happened.
The hunters had split into two groups, with McCallum and Kersten involved in a heli-hunt.
"We were watching them from the distance," Smit said. "After a little while we hadn't seen or heard from Grant and Sam. I got a call from Grant's wife Sue to say she had received a call from Wellington that his emergency locator beacon had gone off."
Smit managed to contact McCallum on his cellphone and discovered there had been a crash.
"He said they were both alive but both were in a pretty bad state," Smit said.
Kersten's former employer, Lochy Taylor, who owns the adjoining farm, had been with the hunting group.
Taylor went to the scene on his quad bike and the hunters followed.
The helicopter was nose down in a gully and Kersten was found head down in a briar bush 5 metres from the wreckage.
McCallum was half-in, half-out of the cockpit and conscious.
"Grant was clearly quite shocked. He kept repeating himself and apologising."
The shaken pilot managed to recall what happened to Smit.
"Sam was on the ground and Grant had come down to pick him up," Smit said. "As Sam approached the chopper he climbed on the skid. Grant didn't expect his sudden weight and the chopper was destabilised.
"Grant had two choices either pull the helicopter down the hill and risk Sam dropping a significant distance or steer the chopper into the side of the hill and maintain that both stayed up the hill.
"Sam was hanging on to the skid. The rotary was spinning fast and the chopper was spinning. Grant's heroic actions saved two lives."
Kersten was thrown from the wreckage and McCallum, who had been wearing a helmet, was knocked unconscious, Smit said.
The injured pilot came around and his quick actions ensured the helicopter didn't catch fire.
"When he came around the chopper motor was still running. He hauled himself out of the cab and leant against the outside of the chopper which is no mean feat. There was a lot of aviation gas about and to reduce the risk of fire . . . he managed to disconnect the battery."
Kersten was lying in a gully with his head in a briar bush.
"I could see from the angle of his legs and feet that both legs were broken. The briars were effectively like a neck brace, he couldn't move."
Smit stayed with Kersten while paramedics from Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter stabilised him.
"He was clearly quite scared. He knew he had been injured. It was a matter of keeping his spirits up. The time spent with him felt like hours. I just sat with him and held his hand."
McCallum underwent surgery yesterday at Wellington Hospital to insert pins in his leg.
Kersten has been transferred to a specialist spinal unit at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch.
Smit said the weather had not played any part in the crash.
"There was no fog at all. It was a beautiful crisp, clear day, the conditions could not have been better for flying," Smit said.
"Grant is a very experienced pilot. He is the most careful safety conscious person I know.
"I spoke to him this morning and I told him to hang in there and get better. He is cut up about Sam, especially as he knows he has a young family."
- The Marlborough Express