Former Whanganui and Hunterville pilot Denis Hartley is awarded the NZ Order of Merit recognising his services to aviation and rescue services.

Mr Hartley began flight training in 1957 with Wanganui Aero Club after being awarded a grant from the Maori Education Foundation. He later became a topdressing pilot in Taihape for Wanganui Aero Work, owned by the Harding family.

His flying with the Hardings was the stepping stone to a career spanning 60 years. After moving to Hawke's Bay flying for Barr Brothers and following a serious flying accident in 1968, he began flying helicopters.

In his first helicopter rescue 45 years ago in Hawke's Bay the patient stretcher was attached on the outside to the skid of the helicopter and the doctor had to lean out the door to give the patient medical attention.


In 1988 Cyclone Bola hit and isolated the East Cape area north of Gisborne with road closures, low cloud and heavy rain. From that first day Mr Hartley was requested by Ruatoria Civil Defence to rescue people from rooftops and cars immersed in flood waters and help people who needed immediate medical treatment caused by the storm.

As Mr Hartley flew in heavy rain and cyclonic force winds, he also attended to more immediate rescues where people needed to be evacuated to higher ground. Due to many hours of flying, Mr Hartley's helicopter fuel stock became low with no fuel deliveries available and people still required urgent assistance. Fortunately the naval ship HMNZS Monowai was stationed off the East Cape, riding out the cyclone, and they offered their helicopter fuel because they had no helicopter aboard.

Mr Hartley was familiar with the Monowai due to previous work, so he was permitted to land to collect fuel. Landing on a pitching deck in cyclonic conditions was certainly exciting, especially when the deck was at times pitched at such an angle he was given the illusion the helicopter was going to slide into the sea but, as standard procedure, on landing the Monowai deck crew immediately roped the helicopter skids to the deck.

Mr Hartley established the East Cape Rescue Trust which equipped community first response rescue squads throughout the East Cape region with equipment including jaws-of-life, stretchers and other emergency equipment.

Mr Hartley trained the squads which relayed weather and other safety information, especially for the numerous night landings that he did to pick up injured or sick patients who had to be flown to Gisborne, Whakatane or Tauranga hospitals at night. He believed the one-hour concept of receiving medical treatment was crucial.

GPS navigation was not reliable in the region for some years therefore night-time navigation was by helicopter instruments and Mr Hartley's local knowledge. Ngati Porou Radio Station instigated the fundraising for the rescue trust and donations were received from all over New Zealand, Chatham Islands and Australia. This pioneered in New Zealand the concept of a community owned rescue helicopter supported by commercial work.

He acknowledged the trustees who drove and supported the East Coast Rescue Service to become the dedicated Air Ambulance service it is today at the Gisborne Airport, and also to those who have given their skills and abilities under trying conditions to help others.

Mr Hartley thinks his saddest rescue was when he flew to pick up two very young children badly injured in a T-bone car crash. Fortunately the helicopter was fitted with two stretchers. Four others were left beside the cars.


His happier moments were when he had two babies born in flight on two separate occasions and another just on touchdown at Gisborne Hospital.

Another time and while in bed with the flu, he had an emergency callout to pick up an injured powerline worker. After delivering the patient to the Te Puia Springs Hospital and having been soaked with heavy rain, Mr Hartley went back to bed where his condition worsened. St John Ambulance in Ruatoria delivered him to hospital where he was put in the bed next to a startled injured powerline worker who recognised him and Mr Hartley stuttered "just checking you are tucked in for the night".

Mr Hartley also established the East Coast Search and Rescue Association and Tokomaru Bay – East Cape marine communications, was a committee member of the Aviation Industry Association (Air Ambulance and Helicopter Divisions) and the Aerial Agricultural Association, was adviser for the Aviation, Tourism and Travel Training Organisation, regional safety officer for the NZ CAA, patron of the Tokomaru Coastguard and is currently a member of Ohope Lions.

As a flight instructor and flight examiner, Mr Hartley has trained numerous pilots in New Zealand, China, Taiwan and India and pioneered methods of helicopter live-line insulator washing and human-sling helicopter live-line maintenance.

Mr Hartley was awarded the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for bravery as a 14-year-old when he dived 30 metres into a flooded river to save a passenger in a car crash.