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‘My first set of angels’: Behind the scenes of a rescue helicopter’s life-saving missions

Samantha Gee05:00, May 22 2021 – Stuff

The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter service is 30 this year. Samantha Gee looks at its life-changing role over the past three decades.

Tipped out of his kayak, with waves breaking over his head, Alan McDermott​ knew time was no longer on his side.

He had been in the water for close to an hour after the weather changed unexpectedly on what had been an otherwise uneventful morning kayak in Golden Bay.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter crew member Paul “Ernie” Bryant with the rescue helicopter's Breeze winch.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFNelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter crew member Paul “Ernie” Bryant with the rescue helicopter’s Breeze winch.

McDermott had set off towards Taupo Point at the top of the Abel Tasman National Park. Halfway across Wainui Bay, he looked over his shoulder at the horizon and noticed the white line of a front forming.

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He turned his kayak straight around and headed for home.

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But within 10 minutes, the front had caught up with him. The sea became rough, with waves more than 1.5 metres high coming in uneven intervals from different directions.

McDermott had been in some “reasonably gnarly” situations before, like the time in Lyttleton Harbour when he hadn’t been able to see the top of passing yachts, but he had never been tipped out of his kayak.

The waves got the better of him that day, rolling his kayak over, leaving him “in the drink”.

Taupo Point, in the Abel Tasman National Park, where Alan McDermott was heading before the weather turned.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFFTaupo Point, in the Abel Tasman National Park, where Alan McDermott was heading before the weather turned.

He was aware of the need to conserve his energy; getting back in the kayak wasn’t an option so he held onto his kayak and kicked for shore.

“After a while I realised I wasn’t making as much progress as I would have liked. I thought, I’m getting tired, it’s been awhile, I’m going to push the button.”

Attached to his lifejacket was a personal locator beacon bought by his wife that McDermott took every time he went out on the water. It was the first time he’d had to use it.MORE FROM
SAMANTHA GEE • NELSON REPORTER

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He kept heading for shore, eventually letting go of his kayak which was slowing him down.

Despite the noise of the ocean, he heard the rescue helicopter about 40 minutes after he activated his beacon.

“I could hear them buzzing around and I was thinking, where are they, I’m over here boys, I’m running out of juice here.

“I knew the clock was starting to wind its way down quite quickly…I was doing everything I could to maximise my chances of getting through.”

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“I thought, if they don’t turn up soon, I’m toast.”

He hadn’t given up, but he knew the odds weren’t great.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Tim Douglas-Clifford, left, kayaker Alan McDermott and crewman Paul “Ernie” Bryant, after McDermott was rescued by the service after spending more than an hour in the water.
SUPPLIEDNelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Tim Douglas-Clifford, left, kayaker Alan McDermott and crewman Paul “Ernie” Bryant, after McDermott was rescued by the service after spending more than an hour in the water.

“Another 10 minutes, I would have been drinking water and at that point, you are buggered.”

But the helicopter found him after spotting his green kayak bobbing in the water. McDermott was winched aboard and taken to the beach, “a shivering staggering mess”.

His temperature was 30 degrees Celsuis, which meant he was suffering from hypothermia. He was flown to Nelson Hospital where he was warmed up to 37.2 degrees C.

McDermott said he was grateful to live in a region with such a great rescue helicopter service.

“There are so many parts of the world where this could happen and there is no backup, there is no plan B.”

Without the rescue helicopter, McDermott said he would be little more than a memory.

“I came about as close as I want to come for a wee while.

“I’m just lucky to have another chance.”

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‘Amazing journey’

Matua Stephens​ was enjoying his first downhill run on a mountainbike after climbing up the Richmond Hills on his mate Lochy McGregor’s 13th birthday in February.

It had taken the group of four more than half an hour to get to the top of the trail. Matua was the second down the hill. He made it down the first few bends, before he hit a rise and came off his bike, landing feet first.

“As soon as I hit the ground I heard the pop, I knew that something had broken straight away.”

Lochy McGregor, left and Matua Stephens were mountain biking together when Stephens fell from his bike breaking his leg and was taken to Nelson Hospital by the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter.
Lochy McGregor, left and Matua Stephens were mountain biking together when Stephens fell from his bike breaking his leg and was taken to Nelson Hospital by the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter.

He crawled up the slope and called out to the others, who came to his aid. Lochy ran back up the hill and called his mum.

“I told her Matua had crashed and we probably needed an ambulance because he was up the hill and he couldn’t move.”

His mum, Sarah McGregor​ said she knew when she saw a photo that Matua had broken his leg and that an ambulance wouldn’t be able to reach him.

Matua’s parents, Terry​ and Pororani​ Stephens met Sarah at the foot of the hills just as the helicopter flew overhead. Pororani said it was surreal knowing the helicopter was heading for their son.

“The fact we couldn’t get to him was the hardest thing, I was in jandals and shorts and I was literally about to run up the hill,” Terry said.

Matua Stephens, in bed at Nelson Hospital with his friends, Jayden Little, left, Austin Arnold and Lochy McGregor. Stephens broke his leg in a mountain bike accident in the Richmond Hills.
Matua Stephens, in bed at Nelson Hospital with his friends, Jayden Little, left, Austin Arnold and Lochy McGregor. Stephens broke his leg in a mountain bike accident in the Richmond Hills.

St John intensive care paramedic Barnabie “Barney” Rennie​ and crew member Paul “Ernie” Bryant​ were on the chopper that day. They were flying in a black and yellow helicopter nicknamed “Big Bird”. Matua joked they were on the Sesame Street bus.

He remembers a drip being put in his arm and drugs being administered. He asked the crew if they could make a stop at McDonald’s on the way to hospital because he was hungry.

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He was winched up from between the trees on the trail and into the helicopter before he was flown to Nelson Hospital.

Matua had broken his right leg and had surgery to have three screws inserted to help the bone heal. He spent three days recovering in hospital during which dad Terry never left his side.

Matua Stephens, front, with his parents Terry and Poroani Stephens in their Brightwater home.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFMatua Stephens, front, with his parents Terry and Poroani Stephens in their Brightwater home.

“The guys were absolutely amazing, they were so professional and they put us at ease, he was just in good hands, they were absolutely outstanding with him,” Terry said.

“Matua had the most amazing journey out of a bad situation.”

Search and Rescue

Matua Stephens and Alan McDermott are among the thousands of people flown to hospital by the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter which is marking 30 years of service this year.

When it started in 1991, the majority of its missions were search and rescue (SAR) callouts. In the last year, search and rescue accounted for only seven per cent of the total missions flown.

Back then, the helicopter was crewed by a pilot, an ambulance officer and a search and rescue crew member – either police SAR “squaddies” or civilian SAR “civvies”.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Colby Tyrrell, top left and crew member Paul “Ernie” Bryant, top right with Joe Hayes, bottom left, Ian Watts, Mike Fitzsimons, Hamish Blanch and Sherp Tucker, founding crew members.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFNelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Colby Tyrrell, top left and crew member Paul “Ernie” Bryant, top right with Joe Hayes, bottom left, Ian Watts, Mike Fitzsimons, Hamish Blanch and Sherp Tucker, founding crew members.

Policemen Mike Fitzsimons​ and Hamish Blanch​ along with search and rescue “civvies” Joe Hayes​, Ian Watts​ and Sherp Tucker​ were among the service’s foundation members.

Between the five of them, they’ve spent more than 70 years crewing for the service.

In those early days, there was no winch, the crew used a static long line which required two crew members to operate it, one in the helicopter and one on the end of the line.

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Their gear consisted of red cotton overalls and a pair of gardening gloves. There were no flotation suits.

“If it looked like it was going to be a strop job you had to take all the gear and it was quite considerable,” Blanch said.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Nelson Quentin Hulse, left St John paramedic Frank Elzenheimer and crew member Mike Fitzsimons fly back to the Rainbow Skifield after winching an injured male skier off the mountain.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFNelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Nelson Quentin Hulse, left St John paramedic Frank Elzenheimer and crew member Mike Fitzsimons fly back to the Rainbow Skifield after winching an injured male skier off the mountain.

“You basically had to fly in then go and find somewhere to land, take the doors off, take all the spare gear out of the helicopter, set the helicopter up for the longline, then the second crewman, the paramedic and the stretcher was then tea-bagged underneath the helicopter to the patient.”

The helicopter would then fly away and land, then get called back to collect the patient. Sometimes the wind and rotor wash meant the stretcher would spin around on the end of the line.

“The other crewman always had an axe and a block of wood, so if anything went wrong, the line was the first thing you chopped,” Hayes said.

That all changed in 1998 with the arrival of a winch, which meant a paramedic could be dropped at the scene without the helicopter having to land nearby.

Sherp Tucker (left), assistant search and rescue coordinator for the Tasman police district, and Tim Douglas-Clifford (right), Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot, have some fun testing the night vision goggles.
PATRICK HAMILTON/STUFFSherp Tucker (left), assistant search and rescue coordinator for the Tasman police district, and Tim Douglas-Clifford (right), Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot, have some fun testing the night vision goggles.

Night flights before the arrival of night vision goggles in 2007 relied completely on good weather and eyesight. Now, around a third of the service’s callouts are at night.

Tucker said if there was a job at night in Golden Bay, the helicopter would fly to 5000 feet above Nelson Airport and if the crew could see the lights at Takaka, then it would go.

He recalled an accident where a stranded whale had broken a person’s hip in Collingwood.

“We were halfway across and it just went all dark and the pilot said, ‘Gents, the moment you can see something, let me know where it is’, as the helicopter had flown into cloud, which wasn’t a good thing.”

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Before the helicopter had a searchlight underneath it, Blanch recalled a search for a missing yachtie in the Nelson Haven where the crew jury-rigged a petrol generator into the back of the chopper and fixed four big lights onto the skids so they could continue searching as night fell.

Sherp Tucker during a Search and Rescue induction exercise near Flora Hut.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFFSherp Tucker during a Search and Rescue induction exercise near Flora Hut.

Tucker was on his hands and knees, looking for the person in the ocean through the clear foot well of the helicopter.

“It’s still the best tool we have in our toolbox for search and rescue, without a doubt,” he said of the helicopter.

In those early days, the SAR crew had training once a month with ambulance staff at the hospital, where they learnt things like how to insert a cannula and what medical equipment they needed to take.

Tucker recalled a search in the Wairoa Gorge where they found a man with a badly broken leg.

“The helicopter was coming to get him and I said to him, ‘I’ve got some morphine here that will help ya, but I’ve never actually put it into a person before, if you want it, we’ll stick it in you, but if you don’t, I’m quite happy to leave it in the pack’, and he didn’t want it then.”

St John intensive care paramedic Matt Wilkinson with two trampers rescued by the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter after they were trapped by heavy snow in a hut in the Lewis Pass area and used an emergency beacon.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFSt John intensive care paramedic Matt Wilkinson with two trampers rescued by the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter after they were trapped by heavy snow in a hut in the Lewis Pass area and used an emergency beacon.

Medical advancements

The rescue helicopter is now staffed by St John intensive care paramedics, one of which is Matt Wilkinson​ who has crewed on the service since 2009.

He said in the last 10 years, medical equipment available to paramedics had changed to the extent they now had access to things like ventilators, syringe drivers and video laryngoscopes.

Intensive care paramedics also had more autonomy to make decisions in the field. They now transported patients with multi-system trauma to where they would get the most appropriate care.

“Previously, you might call 111 and an ambulance would take you to the closest hospital, before sending you onto a secondary or tertiary centre.

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“The big drive is to pick up what the pathology is likely to be and send a helicopter directly to that location, then fly them directly to definitive care.”

A mountain biker is loaded into the Nelson Marlborough Rescue helicopter after a crash in the Kahurangi National Park.
SUPPLIEDA mountain biker is loaded into the Nelson Marlborough Rescue helicopter after a crash in the Kahurangi National Park.

For those in across the top of the South Island, that meant someone who had suffered a burn injury would be flown directly to the Regional Burn Unit at Hutt Hospital and a patient with a spinal injury to the Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch.

Paramedics could also diagnose severe heart attacks such as a STEMI (ST segment elevation myocardial infarction) in the field by an electrocardiogram (ECG). If the catheter lab at Nelson Hospital was unavailable, they patient would be flown to the nearest hospital where they could be operated on.

En route, paramedics could also administer clot busting drugs to dissolve blood clots within a patient’s heart.

Richmond man Philip Steans​ is one of those who has experienced the benefits of being transported to another hospital by the rescue helicopter for life-saving treatment. ​

The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter hovers near a paraglider stuck in trees near the Barnicoat Range.
BRADEN FASTIER/STUFFThe Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter hovers near a paraglider stuck in trees near the Barnicoat Range.

He had been out for a walk in March 2017 when he started experiencing back and shoulder pain. After arriving at Nelson Hospital, doctors told him he needed to get to Wellington Hospital as soon as possible and that the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter would be arriving shortly to collect him.

Steans was suffering from an aortic dissection, the inner lining of his main artery had begun to tear, not that he knew it at the time.

“I remember looking out the window and we were flying over Cook Strait and I thought s… we are low.

“I know I passed out, I don’t recall anything after saying ‘oh I think I’m going to be sick’.”

He spent over nine hours in surgery at Wellington Hospital where had a total aortic arch replacement as a result of a leaking aneurysm and was reunited with his family in the early hours of the next morning.

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Steans said his “could have been a completely different story” and he was very grateful for the rescue helicopter and its crew, who he went to thank after he had recovered.

“They were my first set of angels.

“I’m very lucky to be here.”

The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter service has been saving people across the top of the south since 1991.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFThe Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter service has been saving people across the top of the south since 1991.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter statistics

When the service began in 1991, the rescue helicopter attended approximately 80 callouts a year. In 2001, the service responded to 114 missions, by the end of 2020 that had increased to 489 missions, with this year expected to be close to 600.

In the 12 months ending in April, the rescue helicopter flew 565 missions – of those, 44 per cent were medical events, 26 per cent were accidents, 11 per cent were motor vehicle crashes, 10 per cent were medical transfers and 7 per cent search and rescue.

In the early days, the service was heavily reliant on volunteers. It is now fully staffed with paid crew – pilots, crewmen and St John intensive care paramedics – who are on standby 24/7, 365 days of the year with a five-minute response time during the day and 20 minutes at night.

In its first year of operation, the rescue helicopter service cost $250,000 to run with an ongoing annual cost of $100,000. In order to maintain the service to international standards, the current annual cost is between $1.2 – $1.5 million depending on equipment requirements.

The service is funded by district health board and ACC payments (40 per cent), existing sponsorship arrangements (30 per cent) and community fundraising (30 per cent).

The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter joins police, Fire Service and St John Ambulance at a double fatality crash near Maisey Rd intersection on State Highway 60, the Coastal Highway.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFThe Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter joins police, Fire Service and St John Ambulance at a double fatality crash near Maisey Rd intersection on State Highway 60, the Coastal Highway.

Timeline of the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter service – 1991-2021

May 1991 – The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Trust is established. A Eurocopter Squirrel helicopter was provided by operator Helicopters New Zealand.

August 1994 – The contract is up for renewal and is taken on by Bill and Robyn Reid of Nelson Helicopters, who become the operators of the rescue service.

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August 1996 – Garden City Helicopters take on the contract to operate the rescue helicopter service.

May 1998 – The addition of a winch means injured people can be rescued minutes after they are discovered. Previously, a strop (static long line) was used to airlift people from remote places.

December 2004 – ACC release a draft strategy to centralise air ambulance services that would see the rescue helicopter service disbanded, with the Nelson Marlborough region served from Wellington. A campaign to “Save our Service” was launched in Nelson and the plan was scrapped.

April 2007 – A naming rights sponsorship contract with Summit Real Estate meant the service was known as Summit Rescue for the next five years.

The Summit Rescue Helicopter picks up two trampers from the Red Hills in the Mt Richmond Forest Park in 2011.
SUPPLIEDThe Summit Rescue Helicopter picks up two trampers from the Red Hills in the Mt Richmond Forest Park in 2011.

September 2007 – Two pairs of night vision goggles arrived from the United States, almost two years after they had been ordered, allowing the crew to fly at night.

January 2012 – Garden City Helicopters purchase a BK117 helicopter that is based in Nelson. The move to the twin-engine rescue helicopter meant operational costs increased from about $500,000 to $1.2 million annually.

September 2012 – After relying on volunteers for 21 years, the helicopter secured funding from the Canterbury Community Trust for paid crew rostered on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

December 2015 – A new two-person winch worth $250,000 is acquired after a massive fundraising campaign, enabling up to 270 kilograms can be carried beneath the helicopter

December 2017 – The inaugural Mitre10 MEGA Helicopter House build goes under the hammer and raises $142,000 for the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Trust.

November 2018 – A joint venture contract between Helicopters Otago and GCH Aviation is signed – the National Ambulance Sector Office contract for rescue helicopters services for the South Island.

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Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Pilot Baz McAuliffe, left with Sandy Taylor of Harris Defence Australia with one of two sets of night vision goggles the Australia company has donated to the rescue helicopter service.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFNelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Pilot Baz McAuliffe, left with Sandy Taylor of Harris Defence Australia with one of two sets of night vision goggles the Australia company has donated to the rescue helicopter service.

November 2018 – Harris Technologies Australia donate two pairs of the new white light Night Vision Goggles to the Trust after seeing a Stuff advertising campaign in Australia.

November 2019 – Rosters change to 12-hour shifts with the rescue helicopter crew doubling to provide additional support. Crewmen/winch operators are also required to be St John trained emergency medical technicians (EMT).

December 2019 – The second Mitre10 MEGA Helicopter House build goes under the hammer and raises $210,000 for the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter Trust.

December 2020 – Five new helmets with active noise reduction are purchased for crew with grants from Air Rescue & Community Services, Tasman District Council and individual donors.

January 2021 – Immersion suits donated to the Trust by Foodstuffs Community Foundation and Nelson Host Lions Club to meet industry standards for boat winching.

New World Nelson City owner Greg Guy in an immersion suit funded by the Foodstuffs Community Trust with Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Colby Tyrrell.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFFNew World Nelson City owner Greg Guy in an immersion suit funded by the Foodstuffs Community Trust with Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter pilot Colby Tyrrell.

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