A new $13 million rescue helicopter has had a bumpy start to service with an investigation launched before it even arrived in the country.

The Civil Aviation Authority is investigating an in-flight incident involving pilot error as the new rescue chopper was being flown across Europe, ready to be shipped to Auckland.

But the helicopter's owners say the incident was not major and the investigation will not delay its launch. The chopper will be kitted out with special features to enable rescue workers to save more lives.

Earlier this year, the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust purchased a AW169 twin-turbine helicopter from Italian manufacturer Leonardo to join its fleet.


Chief executive Greg Barrow, projects manager Dave Walley and another ARHT staffer travelled to Italy to pick up the helicopter from Leonardo and transport it to Belgium where it was to be dismantled and shipped to New Zealand.

Barrow's wife also joined the team.

Walley piloted the flight and Barrow, also a very experienced pilot, sat up front to assist.

They made a fuel stop in France and about an hour-and-a-half after they took off again the incident occurred.

Walley asked Barrow to engage the autopilot system, which he did from a button on the control stick in front of him.

Soon afterwards, Barrow inadvertently pushed the button again, disconnecting the autopilot mode and causing the helicopter to "pitch and roll".

"It gave us a bit of a fright," Barrow said.

"But it didn't drop out of the sky ... it was more like turbulence - not as violent as some turbulence though.


"It was human error - simple as that."

As Walley reached over to the central control panel to reengage autopilot, he bumped a dial causing one of the engines to go into idle mode.

The idling was not noticeable due to the power of the aircraft.

"There was no dramatic effect," Barrow said.

"We put the engine back into flight mode and carried on."

He said while the engine dial could be bumped and the mode changed, to actually turn off an engine took an entirely different manoeuvre of the button that could only be done deliberately.

After the bungles, Walley and Barrow decided to land the helicopter and check it over.

There was no damage done, so they took off and continued to Belgium.

"It wasn't dramatic at all," said Barrow.

"It was more embarrassing than anything … occasionally these sorts of thing happen, but it was handled properly, reported properly and is being investigated properly."

They reported the incident to ARHT safety manager Phillip Stott who, following process, advised the CAA.

A CAA spokeswoman confirmed an investigation was under way but could not comment further.

One of the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters out on a job at Castle Rock on the Coromandel. Photo / Supplied
One of the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters out on a job at Castle Rock on the Coromandel. Photo / Supplied

Stott said there was also an internal investigation into the incident - and data from two in-flight monitoring systems had been sent to Leonardo to ensure there were no mechanical or manufacturer issues.

Stott said Leonardo had already reported back that one system was clear.

He said there were no visible issues with the chopper, but the reporting and investigative processes had to be followed.

Stott said it was not unusual for pilots to inadvertently disconnect autopilot in a cockpit or in a flight simulation situation.

This was because the button was right on the side of the control column - in a place that was easily accessible.

"It's not uncommon," he said.

"It's a normal design feature … you don't want the button anywhere else, you want your hand on the control - you just have to be careful of it."

Barrow said the CAA investigation would not delay the launch of the chopper.

It remained planned for mid-November.

The aircraft is currently in a hangar at Ardmore being assembled and fitted out with specific medical systems.

Those systems - including specialised oxygen and stretcher systems - were designed by ARHT paramedics and are being built by a Hamilton company.

The paramedics were asked for input to ensure the aircraft was kitted out in a way that allowed them to give the best treatment to patients.

The Herald on Sunday was invited to see the helicopter but was not allowed to photograph or film it until a public launch in late November.

The new helicopter is much bigger than the current Auckland Westpac Rescue helicopters, meaning paramedics will have more access to patients and be able to treat them better and faster in flight.

Barrow said it would be based at Ardmore or Whitianga as it would not fit in the current base at Mechanics Bay in Auckland.

"The priority is getting it flight ready and even once it's ready we have to go through extensive training - the pilots are already trained but the paramedics need to get used to it," he said.

ARHT is currently looking for a new base after its lease at the Mechanics Bay site changed hands.

The police Eagle helicopter is also facing a move but is in negotiations with the Ports of Auckland, which run the land.

Barrow hoped a solution would soon be found so all three ARHT helicopters could be housed together at a central base.

"It would be great to have this sorted," he said.

"I wouldn't mind a magic fairy coming along and sorting out the place issue … it's a bloody unsettling time."

He is set to meet with Auckland Council next week to discuss how they can help.

The council contributed $900,000 to the new helicopter.

Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust - the facts

• The Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters fly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year
• The service has been running more than 45 years
• In the 2016/17 year ARHT helicopters carried out 1065 missions, including 369 accidents and 619 medical emergencies
• The current choppers, Westpac Rescue 1 & 2, are Bolkov Kawasaki 117's - simply known as BK117
• The new aircraft is a Leonardo AW169 twin-turbine helicopter
• It has a 4.8 tonne take-off weight, making it much bigger than the current 3.2 tonne machines
• The AW169 cost about $13 million, including $900,000 from Auckland Council