Pilots' punt with rescue service pays off

LIFE SAVERS: Mike Parker and Stephen Beck are the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter’s new pilots. Both men have years of experience flying around New Zealand and the world.
LIFE SAVERS: Mike Parker and Stephen Beck are the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter’s new pilots. Both men have years of experience flying around New Zealand and the world.

Taranaki's two new rescue helicopter pilots have swapped scenic flights for saving lives.

Stephen Beck and Mike Parker have been taking to the skies in the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter since former pilots Sam Richmond and Fergus MacLachlan resigned towards the end of last year. Both men have years of experience flying mostly tourist missions around the country and around the world.

Mr Beck has moved to Taranaki from Queenstown, where he spent 13 years piloting a helicopter.

"About 90 per cent of that was tourism but some was emergency services as well," Mr Beck said.

He is not related to well-known Taranaki chopper pilot Alan Beck, of Beck Helicopters.

Mr Parker hails from Paraparaumu but has earned his wings in a number of overseas locations, and most recently in Fiji.

The pilots were hired amid a financial disaster which saw the TRHT warning that the service could be closed by last Christmas if more funding could not be found.

Initially the pilots were contracted for temporary work with the helicopter, with the promise of permanent jobs if new backers were found.

"We had to take a punt, the training organisation had to take a punt and the trust had to take a punt," Mr Beck said.

In December New Plymouth businessman Bryce Barnett was appointed as chairman of the TRHT and David Wickham, the secretary of the Phillips Trust, was taken on as a trustee. The new leadership confirmed that the service would carry on and become sustainable.

"One way or another there was going to be a rescue helicopter in Taranaki, we just didn't know what it was going to look like or who it would be run by," Mr Parker said. The challenge of emergency and rescue work drew both men to the Taranaki jobs, but when they arrived they had to undertake an intensive training programme.

"The first few days we sat here reading these big thick manuals. Learning about things like fuel consumption is really important," Mr Beck said.

Like most New Zealand helicopter pilots, they are used to flying single engine AS350 Squirrels, so have had to to get clued up and qualified to fly the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust's twin-engine Augusta Westland A109E Power.

And like any man with a new vehicle, they are rather enamoured with it.

"I don't think I really want to go back to flying single engine aircraft, " he said.

But with good reason.

"It's one of the more sophisticated helicopters in the country.

"It's a very, very good aircraft. Extremely reliable."

It's not just the helicopter they have had to get used to, but all the gadgets on board.

"We've had to learn about the winch and the GPS and tracking systems and the night-vision goggles."

They have also had a few chances to put their new skills into action, including pulling injured people out of the bush and attending a fatal crash in Normanby in December.

Mr Beck said in the case of the bush rescue, it had been helpful that the person involved had set off their personal locator beacon.

"We had the GPS co-ordinates anyway, but our tracking systems also pick up the radiowaves. So we could just fly straight to it."

Taranaki Daily News