New rescue chopper big leap in safety

By Louisa Cleave

Auckland's new rescue helicopter was officially launched yesterday with a splash of champagne across the skids of the multimillion-dollar machine.

The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust says the $3.3 million chopper is the most advanced and well-equipped of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. It was "christened" by Anne Sherry, chief executive of the main sponsor, Westpac.

The BK-117B2 is the same make as the helicopter previously used by the organisation and not the bigger machine initially hoped for when a fundraising drive began in 2005.

The trust was aiming for a Bell 412EP but could not find a second-hand one of suitable quality and condition.

Chief executive Rea Wikaira said the trust needed a replacement by the expiry of its lease at the end of last year. The lease had cost $1 million a year.

The fundraising campaign, which aimed to raise $7 million, had been put on the backburner but the trust had not ruled out aiming for a Bell in future.

The campaign, backed by Aucklanders such as broadcaster Paul Holmes and businesswoman Michelle Boag, covered half the $3.3 million for the new helicopter.

The other half was financed by the trust.

Mr Wikaira said the BK-117B2 had been privately owned and had low flying hours. The upgraded technology was a "major leap in safety" for pilots, crews and paramedics.

The chopper has night-vision equipment, at a cost of $15,000 per pilot, to provide safer flying after dark. Mr Wikaira said 50 per cent of missions were carried out at night.

"The other technology is the weather radar and storm scope, where we can see storms coming up as we're flying and plan to go around them."

New configuration in the rear also gave paramedics better access to patients.

Trust chairman Murray Bolton said it was NZ's only fully self-contained, fully staffed, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week rescue helicopter service.

"Not only do we now own our own helicopter, late last year we became a Civil Aviation-approved aircraft operator. We are the only rescue helicopter trust that employs its own pilots, paramedics and crew members."

Mr Bolton said the trust had come through four difficult years.

"The support from our sponsors, like our long-term naming rights sponsor Westpac, and the community never seemed to waver during that period. We really needed that support as we still recover only 15 per cent of our costs from Government entities."

A recent independent survey for the Auckland City Council which asked what organisations were most important to the community rated the rescue helicopter as number one.

"That gives me some comfort that we are doing the right thing," said Mr Bolton. "Interestingly, however, we were also the only one of the 12 organisations listed that receives no financial support from any ratepayers."

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