A day in the life of a Rescue Helicopter crewman

Luke Parker
A day in the life of a Rescue Helicopter crewman

With more than 20 years’ experience, Herby Barnes has seen it all.

No day is ever the same for Chief Crewman of the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter, which completed over 900 missions in 2013.

“We transport a lot of people with medical issues like chest and abdominal pain from the islands in the Hauraki Gulf as they require immediate evacuation to a hospital,” he says. “We also get our fair share of trampers who have come to grief in the bush, farm accidents, extreme sport accidents, motor vehicle accidents, and people pulled from the water at beaches.”

Although being physically, mentally, and emotionally strong does help, the 47-year-old says the crewmen are also very aware that there is a job to be done, no matter how horrific or sad the sight of what is presented in front of them.

“We have the tools and the training to deal with most types of trauma or medical conditions our team may encounter. We have to put all that into action to deal with what we have in front of us at the time. Post-mission, we have a great support network in place should anyone feel like they have been through a tough one.”

As accidents happen 24/7, the crew and their two choppers have to operate by those hours too.

“I’m lucky I have a very supportive family that have had to get used to me working shifts on public holidays and birthdays.”

To prepare for the night shift, the crewmen need to prepare their night flying equipment, which usually includes handheld spotlights, powerful searchlights, night vision goggles, and, depending on the season, some very warm clothing if they have to conduct searches with their doors open.

“Once all our required equipment checks and tasks have been completed, we’re basically like firemen waiting for the next call.”

But waiting for that callout doesn’t mean they just sit around doing nothing. There are plenty of daily maintenance tasks and checks to carry out, ensuring their equipment is always kept to a high standard.

When that call does come, the mission requires some highly skilled team members, including the pilot, an advanced care paramedic, a doctor, one crewman, and sometimes a second pilot.

“Each position has their unique specialty skill area, which when all brought together makes a good team to deliver our service.”

At the end of the day, Herby’s role is to help people who need help, and he says the most rewarding part of the job is seeing people recover and come back to say thank you.

“We can see we actually helped them get back in the saddle, and really appreciate seeing their smiley faces.”

What makes a good crewman? The father-of-three reckons you need to be someone with a bit of life experience who can work in high pressure situations. Plus there’s one other obvious trait you need:

“Someone who likes the outdoors is a useful attribute, especially if it’s on both land and water.”

Not all missions are created equal, and long-range off-shore missions are the most challenging they encounter.

“We don’t get too many, but when we do there are so many considerations to cover off and plan for. The weather is never perfect, the fuel is never enough, and the sea is always rough.

“You could be faced with a tiny, tiny dot called a yacht rolling around in the middle of a huge ocean on 30ft waves with no sight of land anywhere, and the fuel tank says you only have 14 minutes to complete the rescue otherwise you won’t reach the safety of land. These missions require so much planning and a hefty chunk of team work to make it all come together.”

He may have been doing this for 20 years, but Herby’s enthusiasm for helping people means he won’t be throwing in the towel any time soon.