Three helicopters went up, Three helicopters came down.

Choppers and hunting

The helicopter, like it or not, has a valid place in the history of deer hunting in New Zealand has genuine a place as the famous deer cullers and their .303 Lee Enfield rifles.

Anyone who has spent time in the hills (prior to 2002) will have watched helicopters recovering wild venison. In my hunting experience, helicopters shooting venison have always been out there. The helicopters commonly recognised by hunters were, first up in the early days the Bell 47, and thereafter the Hughes 300, Hiller 12 E, Hughes 500 and Bell Jet Ranger models. Recently the number of helicopter models has increased and I am sure many of us wouldn't be able to name them in the way we could in the past. Several books 1 record the history of aerial venison recovery in New Zealand and now in addition a couple of film documentaries cover that unique period.

Aerial shooting on our hunting grounds has provoked a widespread dislike of helicopters, but nonetheless, most of us have taken flights in order to gain quick access to the mountains. Air accident statistics show that the hunter pilots and their shooters work in a risky occupation. Venison recovery helicopters have a high crash rate and occasionally recreational hunters have added to the tally of helicopter fatalities.

My first introduction to the amazing skills of the hunter pilots was on a holiday job in Fiordland National Park in the 1970s. The national Park staff was working in conjunction with the DSA & the New Zealand Air Force to try and catch and prosecute helicopter operators who were reputedly poaching wapiti in Fiordland National Park. On one occasion a park ranger and I drove over to Milford Sound as part of a coordinated attempt to catch the helicopter poachers red-handed.

As we approached the sound we witnessed a helicopter practicing its manoeuvrings around Milford airstrip. There were other helicopters buzzing all over the place like noisy hornets. Later in the day we were stupid enough to poke our heads into the then THC (Tourist Hotel Corporation) Hotel Bar. In those times, especially on wet days, the pubs in Te Anau and Milford hosted shooters, gutters, pilots and others associated with the commercial venison recovery business. Not surprisingly our reception at the bar was hot. Nazi salutes and abusive comments. I am of very modest stature, so the ranger's decision to beat a hasty retreat was very sensible.

The route out of Milford Sound is windy and vegetation overhangs the road in many places. In the fading light, on the return drive to Te Anau, we were shocked by a thunderous roar that seemed to fill the cab of the Holden utility with reverberating sound. I looked up and was amazed to see the curved tips of two helicopter struts just above the windscreen. The vegetation by the road was thrashing about while a daring helicopter pilot was doing some heroic flying over the Ute. In a few moments the roaring noise disappeared and we didn't manage to sight the machine.

In all, I have not flown many times in helicopters and my flights these days are during the roar. But nevertheless my recent experiences underscore the risky nature of helicopter flying. For three consecutive roars the helicopters I flew in later crashed.

Pilot Trevor Green, of South West Helicopters and based near Tuatapere would fly wherever you wanted. He knew that southern country like no-one else did.

squirrel helicopter in Fiordland

The first incident I would like to recount occurred on Good Friday April 2nd, 1999. Our party was going back into Southern Fiordland on what was then becoming an annual expedition. When deciding on an area, we would take the Southern Fiordland maps and select a likely looking spot.

In 1999, as on the previous two years, we stopped at a Tuatapere motel and on the flight morning sorted our gear before driving to Clifden. The skies were heavily overcast and there had been a lot of rain in the hills. The helicopter pad was empty when we arrived and there was another group waiting to fly. Trevor was behind in his flight schedule and we watched impatiently. Waiting for helicopters feels like an eternity probably because of the anticipation of adventures to come.

Duly the Squirrel helicopter swooped in over the Clifden farm house and landed on the helipad in front of the hanger. After fuelling the Squirrel and loading our gear, we set off and flew into Lake Kakapo near Lake Hakapua, landing at around 10.00 am. Four eventful days followed and the weather was good as we waited for Trevor to collect us. The agreed 10.00 am pick up time ticked by. Our gear was packed and ready and we scanned the valley for the helicopter. Hours passed and there was no machine. Fortunately it was a beautiful day and we occupied ourselves hunting lobsters and eating coprosma berries.

Finally we saw a tiny helicopter, miles away in the blue sky. It turned in our direction and slowly came up the lower Kakapo River and on over the lake before heading down towards our little clearing. This was not the helicopter that had flown us in.

Later when on route to the South Coast, the pilot explained that Trevor Green had crashed. At 1.00pm on the same day that he had flown us in to Lake Kakapo the chopper had gone down killing himself and a hunting party of four. This crash was the feature of a TV3 documentary on the work of the Transport Accident Investigation Commission. (TAIC)

squirrel helicopter wreck

Needless to say we were shocked at the news and felt a bit lucky having been totally unaware of the crash while camped at Lake Kakapo. One finding of the investigation was that Trevor might have died at the controls. I quote from the TAIC report:

Report 99-003 1.13.4 Expert medical opinion was that the long-standing history of abnormal resting ECGs of the pilot suggested an intermittent minor defect in the conducting and electrical activity of his heart muscle. These abnormalities, even in the absence of any cardiac symptoms and where a stress ECG was normal, doubled his risk of sudden incapacitation from a cardiac event. The air accident investigators work like detectives. Additional evidence that Trevor collapsed before the crash included the following: 1.13.3 Typical injuries to the pilots hands and feet which usually result from his holding the controls at impact were not found.

In other words, the pilot had not been clutching the controls at the time of impact suggesting he had died suddenly in flight. At his funeral the true extent of his flying experience was repeatedly mentioned (15 000 hrs) and there is no doubt that the NZ high country had lost a truly great pilot.

For the 2000 roar, no one was very enthusiastic about organising a big expedition. The previous year, with the news of Trevor's crash, our families had believed it might be our party that had gone down. So understandably, for emotional reasons, Southern Fiordland was out of the question.

I was curious to try hunting in North West Nelson so my son and I drove up the West Coast to Karamea. We overnighted in a motel before preparing for the flight into the lower Karamea River catchment. The morning of the flight was one of those special days only the Coast can produce. Clean air, clear blue skies with the distant forests a dark green colour. You get a feeling that this is a special part of the world.

Robinson R44 wreck

At the Karamea airport my son was impressed by the size, or lack of size of the helicopter that the young pilot wheeled out of the hanger. A Schweizer 269C. There was no room in the bubble for our packs so they had to be tied behind the bubble away from the exhaust pipe.

Up we went in the little bubble. If it wasn't for the din of the Lycoming piston engine you could believe you were a bird. Our pilot followed the big dark brown Karamea River and veered up a side stream on the true left. It was called the Kakapo River. If I was superstitious I don't think that we would have gone there. After an uneventful flight we landed at a campsite on a terrace in the upper Kakapo. On this occasion we carried a mountain radio. As the area wasn't good for deer, at the first whiff of rain we called up the helicopter and asked the pilot to lift us out. This helicopter trip is of little significance except in the context of an amazing coincidence.

Soon after that hunt, I was on an Air NZ passenger flight between Auckland and Christchurch when I started up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He was a fly fisherman and recently had been up the Karamea River. With disbelief I listened while he told me about his aborted helicopter flight out from the Karamea.

Hughes 300 helicopter

I quote from the TAIC accident report:

Occurrence # 00/3731 The pilot lifted to a hover twice to assess the power available, but landed again because of the wind. On the third attempt he achieved a vertical climb to treetop height before transitioning forward. The helicopter began to lose height without loss of rotor rpm, but the pilot was already committed to the takeoff path and could not turn back to the helipad. The machine touched down in the rocky riverbed at low forward speed and rolled on to one side.

The helicopter on this occasion just didn't have what was needed to get it up in the air. Maybe a few more pistons would have helped. The following year my regular hunting mates were chomping at the bit for another big roar trip, but Fiordland was still off the menu. We decided to hunt the Ereweras.

Robinson R44 loading up

A sleek Robinson R44 was parked at Ruatahuna and could be chartered to fly hunters into the surrounding National Park. At that time it was probably the first of these machines in New Zealand. The plan was that two of us were to fly in with food and gear while the others walked. It was a long walk but their partners had banned helicopter flights.

On day one we left our mates by the road for their gut buster, waved goodbye, and drove back to Ruatahuna. After helping to load the Robinson we climbed on board and in good conditions lifted off. But only minutes into the flight we could see that the distant tops were covered in a cap of fog. Apparently this is a common phenomenon in the higher altitude areas of the Ureweras. The pilot banked the chopper around and soon a very disappointed pair of hunters were plonked back in a Ruatahuna paddock. Meanwhile our mates were sweating their way up into the hills. At best we would fly in to meet them the next day.

After a fitful night at Murupara but on a perfect morning we were back at Ruatahuna. The chopper lifted into blue skies, so it came as a great shock to see cloud again in the distance. The mist cap was still there. The famous Tuhoe have been called The People of the Mist and I now understood where this title had come from. The helicopter continued to whine along and I was dreading the announcement that this flight would also have to be abandoned.

At last our shrouded destination loomed ahead and the helicopter slipped into the mist. We found an open drop site on a ridge but unfortunately there was a strong wind from the south and visibility remained poor. As thick mist streamed past the bubble the pilot said, Sorry but we can't land. He turned the chopper off the tops and buzzed past slips that were too steep for a landing in the windy conditions. The mist wasn't going away, nor was the wind as we swept in again. Ill give it one more go, he said. The hovering helicopter was continually buffeted by the wind.

I was unreasonably annoyed when he jettisoned our gear from quite a height. I looked down at the net and contents splayed over a rock and thought about all that damaged food.

Slowly the rocking chopper settled to the ground. The pilot really had done a super job. He didn't take off immediately but sat there having a cigarette, presumably hoping that conditions would improve. They didn't, but he left any way and the noise of the helicopter immediately vanished into the gloom.

 Robinson R44 wreck

Later that year one of my hunting mates sent me an article about that brown Robinson R44 Astro. It had crashed in misty weather in the Ereweras near Ruatahuna killing the pilot and one hunter passenger. The second passenger survived and had to sit next to the wreckage for two days before being rescued. The TAIC Accident Report included the following statements:

Investigation 01-012 History of the Flight: The rear passenger had a restricted view during the flight because of the box on his lap. He described the helicopter climbing, following valleys or ravines, and turning to avoid "fog banks" while keeping beneath the low cloud. He saw that they were at tree top level just before he heard a "bleep" sound, and saw the main rotor taking off the top of a tree on his left. He heard the pilot say "sorry, guys", and saw that they were falling alongside the tree.

You can imagine that, we were reminded of our own misty experience on top of the Ureweras. I have come to the conclusion that helicopters, like bumble bees, wont stay up in the air unless everything is in good condition. The pilot has to be in top working condition, the weather has to be in top condition and the machine has to be in top condition.

Someone commenting about venison recovery helicopters made the pessimistic, but probably accurate statement, that they are accidents waiting to happen. Since that 2001 Urewera hunting trip I have been on a single helicopter. I haven't yet enquired as to whether the machine, an aging Bell Jet Ranger, is dead or alive.


© Copyright Steuart Laing 2005

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