Community service continues to expand
In an ever-expanding fleet of central North Island rescue helicopters, the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter has undergone transformational change, unrecognisable from its humble origins in 1987.
Hamilton was once equipped solely with a Squirrel helicopter capable of flying only in daylight hours, two pilots with no place to call base, and a tennis court at a hospital nurses’ home that served as a landing pad.
Charged with the enormous task of securing sponsorship and encouraging community support, including funding to build a hangar and helipad, it’s fair to say the fledgling service faced challenges.
However, with a small team of volunteers, support soon emerged.
“Being associated with the region’s first and only community rescue helicopter service appealed to most businesses and the community at large; it was a highly visible cause to support,” said founding pilot Grant Bremner.
“Trustbank, who later became Westpac, came on board as foundation sponsor and continue as principal naming rights sponsor today.”
In 1995, the introduction of the Bell 222 helicopter, with IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) capability, was a game-changer, enabling pilots to navigate night missions under instrument guidance, and in conditions with limited visibility.
Hearing the unmistakable sound of the Bell 222‘s approach overhead, day or night, to a rescue from dense bush, roadside, river, mountain or sea was a relief for more than 10,000 people who owed their lives to the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter airlifting them to safety.
The life-saving missions of the crew in the Bell 222 cemented the rescue helicopter’s place in the minds and hearts of the Waikato and King Country communities. The rescue helicopter is now a fullyfledged air emergency medical service.
Due to the growing needs of the community, the trust scoured the global market for a helicopter to operate as a primary machine to work alongside the Bell helicopter that was now headed for a graceful retirement after long and loyal service.
Fitted with single-pilot IFR, the chosen helicopter, the BK-117, was a perfect fit for the three current pilots of the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter, who had plenty of experience with this feature, routinely operating with a single pilot under IFR conditions for many years.
Previously based in Honiara, the winch-capable BK-117 had been used to support Australian Defence Force personnel after political unrest in the Solomon Islands.
The helicopter was flown under its own power for more than 21 hours and 2117 nautical miles, to arrive in New Zealand. It was fitted out with avionics to be rescue-ready to serve the people of the Waikato, King Country and Coromandel regions by 2013.
Rising demand for the rescue helicopter’s life-saving service is evidenced by its substantial increase in mission numbers, including the full-support coverage it gives to the wider Coromandel Peninsula.
Logging a record-breaking total of over 100 potentially life-saving missions in two consecutive months in 2020 alone, the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter has touched
the lives of more than 14,063 patients since inception.
What began with one pilot more than three decades ago is now operating with a flight workforce of 20, consisting of pilots, crewmen and in-house Intensive Care Paramedics, (ICPS); the addition of the latter enabling life-transforming medical treatment outcomes and dramatically reduced response times.
The purchase in 2019 of a second BK-117 twin-engine helicopter is further evidence of growing demand and of the trust’s investment and commitment in meeting technological and navigational expectations.
Today, the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter is raising the bar and leading the charge as an example of what’s possible for all emergency air rescue services in New Zealand when operating at the highest standards of excellence, carried out by the most skilled air rescue professionals in the country.
Editor’s note: This article was supplied by Philips Search & Rescue Trust. Next week, HC Post looks at Whitianga’s helicopter base, and the campaign to reinstate a Coromandel base in summer.