Crash chopper pilot cheats death twice

GOING HOME: Helicopter pilot Grant McCallum, with  son Tom McCallum, left, and wife Sue McCallum, says he did what he could in a hopeless situation.
GOING HOME: Helicopter pilot Grant McCallum, with son Tom McCallum, left, and wife Sue McCallum, says he did what he could in a hopeless situation.

Marlborough man Grant McCallum has been close to death twice in the past 10 days.

The 45-year-old pilot wasn't sure if he would make it when he made the split-second decision to crash his helicopter into a gully on a Grassmere farm on July 6.

Then, during surgery at Wellington Hospital to repair his shattered femur, McCallum stopped breathing "several times". What was scheduled to be a 1-hour operation took six hours.

He was back at home in Riverlands yesterday afternoon after a week at Wellington Hospital and three nights at Wairau Hospital in Blenheim.

The father of one will be out of action for a while after breaking his left femur and his right hand, fracturing all his ribs, and needing "quite a few" stitches to repair the deep gashes and cuts in his leg.

"They reckon I've done reasonably well, considering," he said.

"It's going to take a while, I don't expect to be looking at working any time soon."

His wife, nurse Sue McCallum, was taking time off work to care for him.

At the weekend, McCallum was phoned by hunting mate Sam Kersten, who was with him when his Schweizer 269c helicopter went down.

Kersten, 31, broke both his legs and injured his hips and ribs. He was in a stable condition yesterday after being moved from the intensive care unit to a general ward at Christchurch Hospital.

Despite injuries to his spine, early signs indicated he would not lose the use of his legs.

The pair talked about the accident and what went wrong.

McCallum dropped the helicopter down twice to prompt Kersten to get off the skid and yelled at him to let go, but the younger man panicked and held on.

"He just leapt on to the machine," McCallum said.

"I could only hold it there for so long."

He saw no other option but to turn the helicopter into the hill, flinging Kersten in the opposite direction and ultimately saving his life.

McCallum, who ended up under the machine, has gone "over and over and over" what happened every day since the crash.

"I don't claim to be a hero, I just did what was the right thing to save Sam's life and hopefully mine," he said.

"I was put in a hopeless situation and I did the best I could."

The phone conversation was "pretty hard", he said.

"We both agreed on what happened."

McCallum, who owns Cloudy Bay Helicopters and transport company McCallum Carters Contractors, said one of the hardest things was the loss of his helicopter and livelihood.

He bought the helicopter in 2005 and used it mainly for frost prevention, with the odd private flight.

His 14-year-old son, Tom McCallum, was "heli mad", and was devastated he could no longer go hunting in the helicopter with his dad or practise his flying, McCallum said.

The insurance paperwork was under way, but it would be a while before he found the right helicopter to buy.

He and his wife were grateful for all the support they had received since the crash, from the rescue helicopter staff to staff at Wellington and Wairau hospitals.

The Civil Aviation Authority was investigating the accident and had already looked at the logging books, McCallum said.

He planned on saying a final farewell to what was left of his helicopter, which had been put back into its hangar in Riverlands, before the insurance company sold it for parts. "It's time to put it to rest," he said.

"It's just an accident that never should have happened."

Kersten had also received support, with a givealittle fundraising page set up to help his family almost cracking the $20,000 mark. By 5pm yesterday, 230 people had donated $19,182.

The Marlborough Express