Northland rescue helicopter pilot and award-winning sculptor Sue Dinkelacker has established an exclusive club for those who have been rescued by helicopter, which will help raise money for rescue chopper services around the country.
Joining the Haast Club, she said, was a way for those who had been helped by a rescue helicopter service to give back financially and acknowledge the life-changing experience they had been through.
Dinkelacker has worked in Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) in New Zealand for more than seven years, and is currently a captain, flying Northland Rescue Chopper's Sikorsky S76C++ helicopters out of Whangārei.
"In New Zealand, we are incredibly fortunate to have so many rescue helicopters, which can rescue people in even the most remote regions. The Haast Club is a tribute to the charitable trusts built up by individual communities over decades that help keep these helicopters in the air," she said.
"I still find it remarkable that, in New Zealand, a patient or person who is rescued is flown without question and without charge. This is not the case in the rest of the world, where often evidence of insurance or a credit card is required prior to transport."
Northland rescue helicopters had carried more than 21,000 people to safety since the service was established in 1988.
To join the Haast Club, a person, or friends or family of a person who has been rescued, purchase a collectable artwork sculpted by Dinkelacker, with at least half the purchase price going to the New Zealand rescue helicopter trust of their choice. Members can choose from a bronze lapel pin, a silver pendant and a bronze or silver paperweight/ ornament, with prices ranging from $128 to $2300.
Membership is open worldwide to anyone who has been rescued by helicopter.
Inspired by the bird that snatched Gandalf to safety in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the Haast Club artworks depict the largest eagle ever to have existed in the world, the extinct New Zealand Haast eagle.
Dinkelacker began sculpting out of wood, using hand chisels, to pass the time while on standby for rescue missions, but something that was originally a hobby quickly turned into a passion and a lucrative second job. Now her sculptures can sell for close to $20,000.
Her best-known work is a bronze sculpture, Hand Holding Young Kiwi, which is on public display at Whangārei's Quarry Gardens.
Her two loves, sculpting and flying, had come together serendipitously to create the Haast Club, she said.
"As a rescue pilot myself, I see every day how essential our service is," she said.
"I know how expensive it is to purchase these helicopters, maintain them and provide the skilled pilots and paramedics to pilot them, not to mention the cost of ongoing training for everyone involved.
"I also see the impact on the people and their families who we help. Sometimes, when I'm in uniform, strangers will come up to me to pass on their appreciation from a flight that took place years ago. What we do has far-reaching effects."
General manager Vanessa Furze said, as a charity, Northland Rescue Helicopter relied upon community support and fundraising to continue providing a dedicated emergency rescue service for the people of Northland.
"We love the fact that one of our own has come up with such a special and creative way to raise money for the rescue helicopter services saving lives around the country," she said.
"Not only will the Haast Club be great for fundraising, it will also be really valuable for those who have been rescued by helicopter to be able to connect with others, share their stories and form a sense of community."
Last year Northland rescue choppers responded to 953 calls, just shy of the record 999 in 2018. It also added two new Sikorsky S-76 C++ choppers to its fleet in one of Northland's largest aviation projects.