Helicopters and planes flock to earthquake-stranded Kaikoura

Wings Over Whales Kaikoura pilot Antony Leigh checks out one of the company's planes at Kaikoura Airport.
BRADEN FASTIER/FAIRFAX NZ

Wings Over Whales Kaikoura pilot Antony Leigh checks out one of the company's planes at Kaikoura Airport.

The sight of helicopters and planes buzzing through the skies over Kaikoura has become the new normal for residents of the stranded town.

Pilots from around the South Island have been busy delivering supplies, airlifting out evacuees and surveying damage to the cracked and boulder-strewn roads.

South Pacific Helicopters owner Daniel Stevenson said since the magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit last Monday he and his two pilots had been flat out.

South Pacific Helicopters have been surveying earthquake damage on roads around Kaikoura.
DANIEL STEVENSON

South Pacific Helicopters have been surveying earthquake damage on roads around Kaikoura.

The company, one of the only commercial helicopter operators in Kaikoura, mainly focused on whale watching tours, but that changed drastically after the earthquake.

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Stevenson was one of the first pilots to see the devastation on State Highway 1, flying a surveying mission for Downer New Zealand at first light on Monday morning.

One of the most awe-inspiring things he saw was what looked like the sea boiling near Waipapa Bay, which Stevenson put down to the release of methane gas.

"I was shocked, just the sheer force of Mother Nature, I was blown away because I'd seen the area prior to the damage," he said.

As well as surveying, Stevenson had also been flying freight and supplies, including a motorbike he airlifted from Kaikoura south to a rideable part of State Highway 1.

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The experienced pilot said other helicopter operators from as far afield as Wanaka to Nelson and Blenheim were also lending a hand to get supplies into Kaikoura.

"Most people have dropped everything and put it on hold to come and help," he said.

Like South Pacific Helicopters, sight-seeing airline Wings Over Whales Kaikoura had also switched their short-term focus from whale watching to transporting supplies and people.

Managing director Aneke Bowker said the company flew tourists out of Kaikoura after the earthquake, as well as supplies and people that wanted to get in and out.

The company was based out of Kaikoura Airport, which Bowker said got busy over summer with sight-seeing flights, but the level of activity since the earthquake was unprecedented.

"The last couple of weeks have definitely surpassed any previous activity the airport has seen," she said.

Bowker said the company was continuing to take bookings for whale watching and scenic flights for the coming season, and wanted to get the message out that Kaikoura was still open for business.

"Kaikoura as a town is tenacious with a fantastic level of community spirit so I don't doubt that it'll take long for everyone to get back on their feet," she said.

Flights from Marlborough airline Sounds Air were also in high demand, with the company almost fully booked for flights in and out of Kaikoura for the next two weeks.

Managing director Andrew Crawford said the company was in talks to start shifting seafood out of the town, and was also delivering tonnes of mail and freight for New Zealand Post.

He said they were in discussions to install navigational aids at Kaikoura Airport so Sounds Air planes would be able to land and take off in less conducive weather.

"We'll keep the service open as long as demand is there and certainly as long as the road is out," he said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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