26 Apr 2023

New Zealand’s Rescue Helicopters flew dozens of critical missions both during and after recent storm events across the country, helping save lives and offering an ongoing lifeline to those trapped by floods and slips.

The heroic efforts of Chopper crews come after another record-breaking year of missions in 2022. A total of 9,847 rescues were carried out across the country.

With Chopper Appeal Month just around the corner in May, Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter Group Manager Vanessa Richmond says public fundraising will ensure rescue helicopters are available to Kiwi communities during future disasters.

“We sent multiple aircraft to support the Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti relief effort in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle, including one of the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopters,” Ms Richmond says.

“We worked tirelessly together with local rescue crews, to save or help as many people as possible while working in challenging conditions and with limited communications.

“Our crews were involved in rescue missions, transferring rescue supplies, medical supply drops and bringing communications equipment into Gisborne that helped stranded locals reconnect with loved ones.

“We’re proud to have been able to support New Zealanders during this incredibly difficult time, and are grateful for any donations that will allow us to continue to help people in need.”

The day the cyclone hit, the Hawke’s Bay-based Lowe Corporation Rescue Helicopter Service had their busiest day on record, with Crewman Shaun Walters completing 15 winch operations.

“We winched many different groups from rooftops, including picking up a disabled man who was bedbound on a bed floating in the water,” Mr Walters says.

“We picked two people up who were treading water from under the eaves of a flooded house; winched a man who was clinging to a house using an apple box to keep himself afloat, and a lady standing on a roof with water up to her ankles.

“One of the hardest things during the day for me was that I had left home leaving my family asleep and safe. After the power and communications went out, I couldn’t check in to find out how they were.

“We live beside the Clive River, so it was pretty hard not knowing what was happening. We are all trained to focus on our roles in the helicopter and that was all I could do. Once I was able to see from the air that the Clive River had not broken through the stop banks, I was relieved to know that they would be ok.

“We were doing what we are trained to do – disaster relief training is something that we frequently undertake, and so we were well prepared. It was a very intense and full-on few days at work, with all of us working incredibly long days, but the community needed us in those dire moments.”

Westpac NZ Chief Executive Catherine McGrath recently visited the East Coast and Hawke’s Bay to see the extent of weather damage and the scale of the recovery ahead following Cyclone Gabrielle. She’s asking the public to give generously to support the Chopper’s vital work both in those regions and around the country.

“We love working with the Choppers to make Aotearoa a safer, greater place – whether it’s during large-scale emergencies or helping people who get into trouble in their day-to-day lives,” Ms McGrath says.

“Recent events have highlighted that a Chopper is always there for you, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, and our fundraising during the month of May really helps to keep them flying.”

Westpac staff nationwide will be out and about raising funds for their local rescue helicopter service in the annual Street Appeal on Thursday 4 May.

“Please look out for our people shaking buckets on Street Appeal Day and support them with a donation if you can,” Ms McGrath says.

“We know there are communities struggling to make ends meet at the moment, so please give only what you can. Every dollar will go directly to your local Chopper and help towards keeping them in the air.”

Westpac funds the marketing and administration costs of the Chopper Appeal and distributes all funds raised back to donors’ local rescue helicopter trust.

People wishing to make a donation or find out more information can visit www.chopperappeal.co.nz.