Intrepid fly-boy John Funnell reflects on career aloft

By Lin Ferguson -
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Helicopter pilot John Funnell, a veteran of many rescues and search missions, retired last month.
Helicopter pilot John Funnell, a veteran of many rescues and search missions, retired last month.

He's a fly-boy. He's a hero. He's a Kiwi legend.

He's the intrepid search-and-rescue pilot who has saved the lives of thousands of victims, clocking up a staggering 19,000 hours of flight time.

According to John Funnell, 65, it was never just him - it was all about being part of a spectacular team.

"I was just the pilot."

Funnell has strong Whanganui connections. He worked for Wanganui Aero Work in Pahiatua for some time and got his commercial pilot licence at Wanganui Aero Club, under the "watchful eye of Ivan Warmington".

He later worked in Taihape for WAW, with John Harding as his boss. He completed his agriculture pilot training with Berrick Dalcombe in Whanganui.

Funnell - who now lives in Taupo - is a hotelier, a bee keeper and has a small farm with beef cattle. But there's still an edge of excitement in his voice when he talks about his SAR (search and rescue) days.

His career earned him an MBE and a NZ bravery medal, and he reckons it was because his life had been orchestrated with an abundance of good luck.

"I was doing what I loved, flying and helping people in need by bringing them home safe."

His countless hair-raising, high-profile rescues and mercy missions are written in a folksy style in his book Rescue Pilot, released last week.

The first line of the prologue of the book reads: "Somewhere, up ahead, someone is bleeding, but I have to put that out of my mind."

It is the way he talks which makes it an energetic read. Funnell is a great storyteller.

He laughs about when he unwittingly became part of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour saga where World War II Spitfire pilot and anti-apartheid protester Pat Macquarrie stopped the Hamilton test match.

"Macquarrie was an older man and had gone out on a scenic flight over Taupo that day.

When they got back to the airport Macquarrie waited and when the pilot went into the terminal building he jumped into plane, started it up and took off, heading for Hamilton and the match."

According to news reports, Macquarrie was planning to crash the plane into the grandstand.

"I was called in by police to take a couple of officers and chase Macquarrie. I told them I hoped there were no firearms. But close to start of the match, they called it off.

John Funnell in a Lama helicopter on Mount Ruapehu.
John Funnell in a Lama helicopter on Mount Ruapehu.

"Macquarrie is dead now but he did prison time."

Funnell and his team were called in as part of the massive relief operation in 2004 to the tsunami that hit Banda Aceh on Boxing Day in Indonesia.

"They were trying desperately to get aid in and we had the large Russian helicopter Mi-8, which they badly needed," Funnell said.

"I'll never forget the smell of death there. It was horrific.'

He recounts in his book someone saying to him: "Birds. If there are lots of bodies round, there'll be lots of birds."

"And there were," he said.

The search still described as the biggest in New Zealand's history in 2005 - though there have been bigger and costlier since - was the search for NZ billionaire Michael Erceg's missing helicopter. His passenger was a Dutch beer baron.

Even though the search was called off after some weeks, the family funded a private search.

Funnell remembers they were even offered advice by a clairvoyant, Francie Williams.

The wreckage of the burnt-out aircraft was finally found in the Kaimanawa Ranges with no survivors.

After flying to Wellington and briefing the company funding the search, Funnell says in his book when he got home he called Williams. "Francie, you know where you reckon the plane crashed? You put a mark on the map to show us?"

"Yes?"
"Well, sorry to say, you were wrong."
"'Oh!"
"Yep. You were 30 metres out."

One of his best-known ventures was his 800km mercy mission to save a MetService employee on the remote Antarctic Campbell Island, who had been critically injured by a shark.

For two days they had no sleep, Funnell said.

"But the poor guy only had to lose one arm in the end, thank goodness."

Funnell laughs when remembering his early missions when there was no paramedic or fire officer on board.

"I, of course, knew nothing medically.

"But I got pretty good at knowing if there was a person lying on the ground still warm with a pulse but not moving, they were in trouble. But if someone was walking round yelling with pain, I knew they were okay."

"I called it the 'John Funnell triage system'."

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