The men behind the mercy missions

ANDREA O'NEIL
Last updated 13:55 15/03/2014

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Rescue helicopters hover behind countless headlines, such as the man who got an angle grinder stuck in his chest this week. But few of the reluctant heroes who work on the aircraft make the news themselves.

That's no coincidence, says Wellington Life Flight Trust crewman and winch operator Julian Burn.

"That's the way we like it. It's like all the emergency services, none of those guys are in it for the glory."

Strathmore man Burn, 41, was truly in the limelight, however, when he began his involvement with the trust, which provides Wellington's Westpac rescue helicopter and operates air ambulances around the country.

In 1999 he found himself dressed as Santa Claus, dangling 100 metres beneath the rescue helicopter at Wellington's Carols by Candlelight concert. He was working as a radio host for ZM at the time and was the only staffer to volunteer for the exploit.

"Everyone else on at ZM was too chicken to do it," he says.

Airborne life clearly suited Burn, who soon became a helicopter volunteer and secured a full-time crewman position in 2009.

Despite his Santa stunt, he insists he is not an adrenaline junkie. "I'm not a thrill seeker. That was the craziest thing I've ever done."

What he brings to the job is a level head, flexibility and calmness under pressure.

"You have to be one of those people who can think outside the square," he says. "Every day is different from the next."

A strong stomach is a bonus for helicopter crews working in Wellington weather, as Aucklanders discover when they cover shifts for Life Flight crew.

"They get down here and we'll get a howling northerly at 50 knots - you can see them going whiter."

Winching a paramedic down to a patient can be hairy, even in the best Wellington weather.

Burn is out of the pilot's sight during winching, so has to interpret hand signals from the dangling paramedic and relay instructions to the pilot by radio. It's an especially tricky job during a sea rescue. "The boat will be heaving and pitching all over the place."

One such rescue stands out in his memory. A boatie had been struggling in cold water off Owhiro Bay for 24 hours and had a body temperature in the low 20s when the chopper arrived.

"He was as close to being dead as you possibly can be and still have a pulse."

The chopper got the patient to Wellington Hospital in five minutes. "If there were no helicopters around, there's no question that guy would have died."

Another memorable rescue was that of a young Australian tramper who had walked a Tararua track in bare feet in order to be closer to nature.

His feet were so damaged he couldn't even walk 150 metres to the helicopter.

"I don't know what he was thinking. He cut his feet to shreds."

Burn is not medically trained, but is often the first to communicate with patients and their families. "You're there for some bad days in people's lives. You've just got to be empathetic and supporting and caring."

While night shifts can take their toll on a social life, he never questions why he does rescue work. "As corny as it seems, it's helping people. It's just great fun and a great challenge. You're always learning something."

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FROM Y2K TO RESCUES

Geoff Taylor became a rescue helicopter volunteer to save Hawke's Bay from a technological apocalypse. It was New Year's Eve 1999, and the Y2K bug was widely expected to cripple the world's computers, making planes drop out of the sky and liquidating the world's banking systems.

Hastings man Taylor, now 51, was already considering volunteering for the Hawke's Bay rescue helicopter when he was asked by its crew to help with the millennium countdown.

He was mates with the team already, through his job as an aviation engineer.

Of course, Y2K chaos never eventuated, and Mr Taylor did not set foot in a helicopter that night. But he had found his calling, and after 13 years as a volunteer crewman, was employed full-time in 2012.

"I couldn't think of many things that could make it better. I like flying and I like helping people," Taylor says.

"The challenge is to be the best you can be."

Even as a volunteer, on call round the clock, he could not believe his luck to be flying rescue missions, but the feeling is even better now, he says.

"On a beautiful clear frosty morning, coming out of the bush with a successful job done, you fly back thinking, 'Gee whiz, I get paid to do this?' "

He has always been drawn to adventure and variety in a job. "My whole career has been based around breakdowns, first as an electrician and then as an aircraft engineer.

"You never know what rolls in every day. I couldn't go to a factory and do the same thing every day."

Despite holding a pilot's licence, he does not fly the chopper, but there's not much else he doesn't do.

A crew aims to be airborne 10 minutes after getting an emergency call, and often know few details about the rescue they are to attend.

Taylor gathers the equipment he thinks the job will require, loads the helicopter, opens the hangar and, once airborne, helps with navigation. The whole time he is seeking details about landing sites, weather conditions and what state the patient is in. Once the helicopter is on site, the patient might need to be stretchered or winched into it.

Every rescue flight carries an advanced paramedic, but Taylor has basic paramedic training so often helps out. It's seldom a gruesome task, he says.

"Everyone loves [to hear about] blood and guts but it's not like that, usually.

"I've had one job where I got upset, many years ago. A little girl got hurt and she looked like my daughter at that time. All logic says it's not my daughter, but there's an instinct where you say, 'Oh my god'."

The chopper's 320 missions a year involve anything from trampers lost in the bush, farm accidents, road crashes or more routine medical problems where a patient lives remotely - "Anything that involves human activity off the couch."

COMMITMENT PART OF THE JOB

Being unable to travel further than 10 minutes from his helicopter hangar has its compensations for one of the country's youngest rescue pilots, Lance Burns.

Palmerston North man Burns, 28, is restricted to within just a few kilometres of his home near the city's hospital while on call, which is half the time - only one other pilot works the chopper.

"When the pager goes off, you've really got to be on to it and get going," he says.

Out of the question most nights, too, is relaxing with a beer - drinking is forbidden on shifts, which can stretch to six days in a row, 24 hours a day.

"I'm not a big drinker, anyway," Burns says.

It's all worth it to manoeuvre his machine into tricky landing spots, helping those in desperate need.

"I'd always wanted to become a pilot, and when I decided on helicopters, my ultimate goal was to get to a rescue helicopter.

"I liked the idea of helping people, to do something I enjoy and be able to help people. It's a great fit."

He trained at Nelson Aviation College in 2006, staying on a further three years as an instructor. He then spent two years with Glacier Helicopters, flying tourists and climbers around the West Coast glaciers and Mt Cook.

That alpine experience comes in handy now, as he often attends rescues in the central plateau mountains.

He began with the rescue helicopter a year ago in a baptism of fire, flying nine rescues in five days. One a day is more usual, but you can never predict the workload, he says.

"The biggest thing I had to get used to was the unknown of when you would go out, the 24-hour nature of it.

"You go somewhere different every day. You have to be able to not be fazed."

A rescue a few months into the job sticks in his mind - he had to land on the road in Manakau, near Levin, to attend a car crash, and was using night-vision gear for the first time.

"I was still relatively new. It stood out for me, it was the first serious accident I had been to."

Pilots have little contact with passengers, but rescues still affect them, he says. "I'll think about it over the next day or so."

Patients often seek him out after rescues to say their thanks, popping into the hangar or sending letters. "You meet people on the street and they'll recognise you and say, 'You flew me after my accident'.

"Every patient I've flown has been very appreciative. They're having a very bad day, so anything we can do to help them, it's quite rewarding.

"If I was in that situation, I would want a helicopter to rescue me as well."

SMILE ALWAYS APPRECIATED

You can't beat the job satisfaction when a seriously injured man, covered in dirt and twigs, gives a big grin to his rescuers, says Rotorua paramedic Steve Brake.

Ngongotaha man Brake, 38, vividly recounts abseiling down a steep forested gully to reach a badly hurt man, who had slipped after a tree branch fell on him near Opotiki.

With a 60-metre drop below them, rescuers sawed down saplings to form a clearing around the patient, and loaded him on to the hovering helicopter.

"To see his big beaming smile, and to know we'd done what we set out to achieve, it was a really great feeling," Mr Brake says.

He does not tell his family many details about his airborne rescues.

"There's risk with any helicopter, whether it's medical or just for a joyride. They're noisy, dusty, there's limited room to move inside.

"It's a very intense situation, it's very mentally strenuous."

Being winched down to reach a patient is both exhilarating and scary. That said, rescue helicopter pilots are "the best of the best".

"We definitely trust them with our lives."

Brake began volunteering as an ambulance paramedic in 1998, and within six months was set on a career in emergency care. "It definitely gets into your blood."

He threw himself into study and, by 2004, had a full-time job with St John. Two years later he was sufficiently qualified to join Bay Trust rescue helicopter missions.

Eight Rotorua paramedics work the chopper, so Brake might not fly for three months - or he might attend two rescues in a day.

A paramedic needs to scan the skies for his pilot, watching for other aircraft or hazards such as telegraph wires, he says. "Two sets of eyes are better than one."

That's on top of giving intensive care to patients, who are often bewildered and afraid.

"Most people don't expect they'll be on their backs being winched into a helicopter when their day begins. We need to be mindful that our patients can be very nervous."

Communication is key - he talks patients through the helicopter ride while they're still on the ground.

The helicopter might land several times on its journey so that he can calm a patient down, or so he can unbuckle from his seat and attend better to their needs.

Typical jobs in the Rotorua region include windsurfing accidents, hunters, fishermen or horse riders in distress, and injured loggers and farm workers.

"You're seeing suffering, misery, heartache on a regular basis.

"It's sad at times, and it definitely takes its toll. You see people who are injured and scared, but knowing you can make a difference in that situation, it is really rewarding."

- The Dominion Post

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