Chopper Country: Tararua Forest Park

Jessica Satherley
Chopper Country: Tararua Forest Park
Staglands Wildlife Reserve manager Aaron La Roche pictured

Rescue helicopters are usually associated with rescuing stranded climbers or plucking boaties from the decks of their sinking ships – but how about rescuing a young boy stabbed in the stomach during a family picnic?

A young family were visiting Staglands Wildlife Reserve in the Wellington region for a family picnic when an unfortunate accident left the boy needing to be airlifted to hospital.

“The mother was carrying the family picnic in a backpack when her son decided to hop on her back for a ride.  The blade of the picnic knife, which was jutting out of the bag, stabbed the boy,” said Wendy Robinson from Staglands.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter arrived from Wellington within minutes and whisked them off to Wellington Hospital, where the boy made a full recovery.

Staff at Staglands are used to seeing the chopper fly overhead on its latest mission.

“It’s hard to miss really as its distinctive noise draws the attention of those below,” Robinson said.

“We often wonder what the story behind the call out is, hoping it isn’t too serious and a little relieved when it doesn’t involve us.”

Tararua Forest Park, which spans from the Kapiti Coast to the Wairarapa, is another frequented spot for the Wellington-based chopper.  The park might look like a docile wooded area but it can be easily misjudged by inexperienced trampers.

Weather conditions in the ranges can change rapidly and drop to -20degC in the winter.

“There is sharp volcanic rock and exposed tree roots in the earth, it’s not for beginner hikers,” Westpac Rescue Helicopter winch operator and air crewman Julian Burn says.

“We usually get dispatched to the area around 15 times a year, especially during autumn when trampers have misjudged the changing weather conditions and either have an accident or get lost.”

Rescuing lost people who have walked off track is a common mission for the helicopter crew and on occasion their pets are in tow.

“We’ve had a few rescues where the animals also had to be winched out, because there are only three spots across the whole park where we can land,” Burn said.

“One man was with his dog when they wandered off track and got lost.  The dog had to be sedated so that we could get them both out by winch and drop them back at our chopper base in Wellington,” he added.

On search missions for lost hikers, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew packs night vision goggles, infrared radar and mapping software to track people beneath the trees and dense foliage.

Because of the lack of options to land, the chopper is usually hovering at around 150 feet by when they need to use their winch.

By the time the crew get a call out, they can be airborne within 10 minutes and flight time back to Wellington Hospital or their chopper base is approximately 20 minutes.

Injured patients in the park have also called for rescue after rolling an ankle or cutting their feet on sharp rock.

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