The New Zealand rescue helicopter fleet is integral to Search and Rescue (SAR) for delivering advanced medical and rescue capability. Without them, more lives would be lost and the SAR organisation would be overwhelmed.

One famous example of a major SAR without the use of helicopters occurred in 1948, with the rescue of Ruth Adams from the summit of La Perouse in the Southern Alps. This was undoubtedly one of the most epic rescues of modern times, involving dozens of rescuers. Over nearly two weeks they carried the patient over La Perouse and down the formidable Cook River. Just before he died, Ed Hillary, who was involved in the accident and rescue, reflected that it was one of the more remarkable events of his life. If helicopters had been available then, the rescue would have ended swiftly in a few hours without major drama.

In this article, paramedic Jon Leach, one of New Zealand’s most experienced rescue helicopter crew members, tells me about his work. Jon began his rescue career with the RNZAF and Wellington Airport Crash Fire Service before becoming a crewman on the Wellington Westpac Rescue helicopter in 2001. After relocating to Nelson in 2006, Jon continued to crew the Nelson based Summit Rescue helicopter, where he also qualified as an intensive care paramedic.

BCA: Talk through a typical rescue.

JL: Firstly we are notified and we respond to the helicopter hanger. We brief the team and set up the helicopter for the type of mission that we are going on, and ensure all rescue and safety equipment is on board. The helicopter has a moving map, paper maps and direction finder for personal locator beacons. We usually have a crew of three: pilot, intensive care paramedic and winch operator. We then respond to the incident, and everything after that depends on finding and assessing if we can land or need to winch. Once the individual is rescued we usually will transport to a hospital if they’re injured or to safety if not; that depends on discussion with the lead agency – usually the police or New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre (NZRCC).

BCA: What sort of traits, skills and qualifications are needed?

JL: As a crewperson you need a range of different skills. I put them into categories: navigation and communication are key, as you are often the liaison between the helicopter and a number of different services, for example, Police SAR, NZRCC, Maritime NZ, Ambulance and Fire.

You need to be a good lateral thinker and have the ability to think and process information quickly. This is important in searching and during winch operations.

Obviously you need to be a trained winch operator, which takes time and experience. Every time we do a winch rescue, I learn something new. There are always things you can improve.

There is increasing expectation for crew members to have medical qualifications. I am a qualified intensive care paramedic, which is more than is required. In the future, most crew will require an Emergency Medical Technician qualification.

You need to have the ability to cope and look after yourself in varying environments. We can be at the beach one moment and the next in an alpine environment, so we regularly train to survive and work in alpine, bush and water environments. Finally, you need to enjoy the role. If you can’t, you need to quit.

BCA: What was your most challenging job?

JL: Many have been difficult, but surprisingly the two that come to mind didn’t involve winching. Firstly, on a rescue at Mount Hector in the Tararua Range, we could not get to the tramper in the initial search, due to the conditions. So then we were involved in landing SAR teams at Alpha Hut and Bull Mound. This sticks in my mind due to the amazing variance of conditions:  winds of up to 60 nautical miles an hour with snow and rain around Alpha Hut, yet back in Wellington the winds were mild and skies clear.

Most recently, we pulled two well-prepared hunters and a family of three from Kahurangi National Park after the hunters set off a beacon. The family had been caught out in heavy rain and snow overnight, but luckily had made it to Splugeons Shelter that morning. The weather was again variable. After flying the family out to safety, we returned to pull out the paramedic and hunters as there was exceptionally heavy (shoulder depth) snow on the track and more bad weather was forecast. After we had uplifted them we found that our route had been clouded in. This meant we needed to run down the Karamea River and fly out the Wangapeka, with a lot of navigation and crew coordination. As we could land above the shelter, it was overall a relatively easy rescue job, but the weather became the biggest issue.

BCA: When should a group in trouble call for a helicopter rescue – what sort of injuries or medical conditions warrant this step?

JL: It really depends on the experience level in the group. SAR should be called if they are overwhelmed for some reason, or the weather has placed them in a position of danger with no way back and no way to stick it out in shelter. Injury-wise, evacuation is warranted for broken bones, head injuries, or medical conditions such as asthma or unrelieved chest pain when normal medication is not resolving the problem.

Groups need to be prepared with the correct medical supplies for all the people in the party, and should also carry a means of raising the alarm – a mountain radio, satellite communicator or personal locator beacon. If you’re prepared, you’re less likely to need to use the service.

BCA: How should a group activate a rescue?

JL: By activating their beacon, or emergency signal on their satellite communication device. We have found that when trampers on a day trip get in trouble, they often rely on someone in the party getting out to raise the alarm, which can delay rescue efforts and leave the injured party on their own for a long time.

BCA: What can a group do to assist a helicopter rescue?

JL: If you’ve raised the alarm via phone, it helps to know where you are. This sounds easy, but we have often flown the length of a track when a person can’t explain their exact location. Know how to provide a grid reference or lat/long from your map, phone or GPS device. Have a means of signalling the helicopter. During the day, survival blankets or orange survival bags are excellent. At night, use a light. Our night vision goggles (NVGs) can detect a small light from a couple of miles away. Most rescue helicopters have NVGs.

BCA: Can a helicopter rescue still proceed at night or in bad weather?

JL: Weather restricts us. Though we often fly in rough conditions, the pilot must keep the ground within sight at all times. At night the rules are the same. Although NVGs have greatly increased our abilities, again we must be able to see the ground. Wind causes problems, especially in the lee side of mountains. Often this means the helicopter has insufficient power to hold its position, meaning we can’t always get directly to the individual or group.

BCA: What are the medical capabilities of the rescue helicopters?

JL: Most rescue helicopters in the main centres carry intensive care paramedics, in other centres at least a paramedic. This means that there is a high level of medical care being provided at all times and that the injured party can be treated immediately and made comfortable on the trip to hospital.

BCA: What are the most difficult aspects of a rescue in the outdoors and how do you manage them?

JL: Often the most difficult aspect in rescue is the search phase. If we can’t find you, we can’t help – so this can be the most frustrating part of the job. We manage this through good communication and obtaining good information, prior to leaving base. Coordinating a winch in difficult terrain can be trying. By training each month, and ensuring all the team members are competent at their role, we can perform at our best.

BCA: Is there a cost for the service?

JL: Luckily in New Zealand, rescue services are paid through NZRCC, Police SAR, District Health Boards and ACC. All rescue helicopter services need some fundraising to cover the cost of training, new equipment and maintaining the service. The funding needed varies depending on the workload of the service, the type of helicopter provided and the level of service provision.

BCA: Finally, what keeps you doing it?

JL: I keep doing it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I feel I can give back to the community – when working as a crewman I am a volunteer.

Secondly, being involved in saving or rescuing people is amazing. Finally, in Nelson we have a really motivated team, where everyone has different expertise. This means we are constantly learning and developing the service. My individual abilities have expanded hugely due to input from SAR, NZ Police, Surf Live Saving and specialised environment training such as alpine and caving.

This article was re-published from the March 2011 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine and edited slightly to ensure it remains relevant in 2021.  To subscribe to the print version, please visit The Backcountry Accidents Column, in one form or another, has been a feature of FMC publications since 1938. Read Shaun Barnett’s article on the history of the column to understand the thinking behind this highly regarded series of articles.