SOS in sand leads to pilot's rescue

Grant Harper, beside the line drawn in the sand on Uretiti Beach to indicate where a helicopter crashed into the sea. Photo / NZPA
Grant Harper, beside the line drawn in the sand on Uretiti Beach to indicate where a helicopter crashed into the sea. Photo / NZPA

In a scene straight out of a desert island castaway story, a line scrawled in the beach pointed rescuers to a helicopter crash in the sea near Whangarei today, helping save a pilot's life.

After phoning 111 for help just after midday, Whangarei man Grant Harper drew the line to show rescue aircraft the coordinates they should follow to find the crashed helicopter.

He told NZPA he was relieved when an air force Orion found the crash on the line he had drawn, then learnt from a police officer the pilot had survived.

The pilot, who is 23, was winched out of the water by a rescue helicopter two hours after witnesses heard the chopper flying low over Bream Bay about 30km south of the Whangarei Heads.

The pilot was taken to Whangarei Hospital where he was tonight reported to be in a stable condition.

Two aircraft and five boats began searching for the pilot in a line between Waipu and Little Barrier Island, just south of the entrance to Whangarei Harbour.

Mr Harper and his wife Margaret had been waiting for the tide to go out so they could gather shellfish when they heard a strange noise followed by "one hell of a bang".

When they looked up, a couple was running up the beach toward them yelling there had been a crash, and did the Harpers have a phone to call for help.

After getting through to 111, Mr Harper told the rescue service he would draw a line in the sand to point out the crash site.

"We were trying to describe where it was, and we were getting concerned it would get mucked up and lost, so we drew a line on the beach to point them toward it," he said.

The crash was too far off shore to swim out, he said.

"It's a horrible feeling, there's someone in the water out there and you can do much, you do what you can do, every little bit helps, really."

The Harpers were initially worried the crash would be missed.

"We just sat there watching the Orion going around and around, he was too far out. Then they got him on a better coordinate and he came in."

A rescue helicopter came, dropped a person in the water to the pilot who was winched out, and the drama was soon over.

Mr Harper was pleased his line had been correct, and that the pilot had lived.

"It was a good feeling, you know."

The pilot was spotted about by an Air Force Orion team about 600m off Waipu Beach.

But when the Orion turned around to come back the man had disappeared. It took another three or four passes before he was found again and the Orion dropped a white smoke flare.

He was winched from the water by the Northland Emergency Services Trust Sikorsky rescue helicopter.

Rescue helicopter pilot Dean Voelkerling told NZPA the victim, believed to be the only person on the helicopter when it crashed, was very cold.

"He didn't appear to have any obvious injuries apart from being straight out cold."

He said the Orion made "the whole job a hell of a lot easier. They just popped out some smoke and he was probably 100 metres from that smoke. We just cruised in behind them and picked him up."

He said the Orion crew did a "fantastic job.

"He was very, very hard to see in the water."

"I think he is extremely lucky, purely and simply on the fact that someone on the shore saw something go splash and had very good information as to a bearing.

"He was pretty much right where they said he would be."

Mr Voelkerling said the searching aircraft and rescue boats probably would have found the man had not the Orion spotted him.

One of the searching boats found a straw hat floating in the water and another boat found a pillow.

He said it was a straightforward procedure to winch the man on board.

Today's crash was the second off the Northland Coast in just over two years.

On December 26, 2008, a Cessna crashed into the sea about 500 metres south of the Ruakaka Surf Lifesaving Club after the engine failed.

The 52-year-old pilot was flying from Ardmore in Auckland to Whangarei to visit his mother in Whangarei Hospital.

The pilot was not hurt and was rescued by two Ruakaka surf lifeguards as he swam to shore after the aircraft sank.


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