By WAYNE THOMPSON

Helicopter pilot. Died aged 50.

Grant Ward was once held up at gunpoint for the pieces of gold his helicopter passengers paid him as fares.

It was during a gold rush in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s and the New Zealander was flying prospectors to easy pickings in remote jungle mines.

One of them thought it easier to rob the hard-working pilot.

Ward was to come home with many other dangerous experiences under his belt after a three-year stint based at Mount Hagen in the western highlands.

The jovial Ward shared some around the kitchen table of backcountry homes after a 10-hour day at the controls of a powerful helicopter lifting logs from forests.

He was on a logging assignment in the rugged Motu District 100km west of Gisborne on January 3 when his UH1L - a civilian version of the Iroquois operated by the RNZAF - crashed and caught fire after completing a drop-off of logs.

Logging had become the 50-year-old's main interest in a varied career as a pilot that took him all over New Zealand and the Pacific, and even to South America.

"Grant was one of the most experienced logging pilots in New Zealand," said his friend, John Funnell, Taupo search and rescue chief and director of aviation companies.

"He was a guy who had more than 16,000 hours in helicopters, which is quite a number. He had wide experience, flew in a lot of places and was always looking for opportunities and to meet the needs of the customer."

Funnell recalls in 1977 a young man fresh from the family's bee-keeping business in Dannevirke, Hawkes Bay, coming to work with him as loader-driver in a helicopter spraying and lifting operation.

Ward passed his commercial pilot's licence and gained flying time with mentor Funnell ferrying helicopters from job to job.

In 1978 Ward moved to Queensland for jobs that included aerial mustering of stock and flying a Bell 47 to give Brisbane its first television news helicopter.

Live deer capture was starting in the North Island high country and Ward, thirsty for adventure, was drawn to it.

Hovering above the bush in a Hughes 500, with a shooter equipped with home-made netgun and darts, he caught many of the big and valuable deer from remote parts of the East Coast and Wairarapa.

When the venison boom fizzled out, Ward moved to Northland to fly a Lama on farm and forestry work until 1988 when adventure called him to the wild frontier of Papua New Guinea.

On his return to New Zealand he took up heli-logging - lifting out valuable logs of native timber from the forests, first in a Bell 205 and later, the Russian-made Mi-8T log carrier for a Canadian company which had the harvesting contract for Timberlands West Coast.

Ward went to El Salvador for training on the 25m-long machines. Two of them were imported from there in 1993 amid controversy over whether they had seen action as gunships in the Nicaraguan conflict against American-backed Contra rebels.

One crashed on the West Coast three months later, killing the three crew.

Ward carried on working for a new contractor, Heli Harvest, flying a more powerful M1-8MTB, and later went to the Solomon Islands for heli-logging work. The clear waters of the islands were a paradise for the former national champion spearfisherman.

In the past two years his Pukekohe-based Ward Aviation operated two UH1Ls, working mainly for landowners in sustainable harvesting of native timber from south Auckland to Southland.

His accuracy and skill with 70m of wire strop slung below were seen on national television last year as he helped to unload the Jody F. Millennium during attempts to refloat the stranded log carrier in rough weather off Gisborne.

Ward is survived by his wife, Sue, and two adult daughters, Sharon and Rachael.