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Veteran pilot’s Aceh aid work has lessons for NZ

February 1 2005

Veteran pilot’s Aceh aid work has lessons for New Zealand

Three weeks flying aid missions in Indonesia and now a stint in Australia fighting bush fires have reinforced veteran rescue helicopter pilot John Funnell’s concern that New Zealand must not allow its air services to run down.

With 30 years of air rescue experience and as President of the Aviation Industry Association, Mr Funnell has lived constantly with the problems that currently beset New Zealand’s aviation industry.

Mr Funnell, who holds an MBE for his contribution to search and rescue in New Zealand, flew out to Victoria, Australia, on Monday (January 31) to help fight bush fires after being back in New Zealand only a few days from a three-week mission in Aceh, Indonesia, delivering aid to outlying villages demolished by the tsunami.

He said the recent threat in ACC’s draft air ambulance strategy to reduce New Zealand’s air rescue capacity from 18 centres to 12 plus the country’s shortage of experienced fixed wing and helicopter pilots were symptoms of New Zealand’s ignorance about its need for a strong commercial and air rescue capacity.

Though opposition to the draft strategy forced ACC Minister Ruth Dyson to withdraw it two weeks ago, saying local rescue helicopters were safe, the aviation industry is left nervously wondering why ACC could have so little understanding of the importance of providing the most rapid response units possible to emergency situations.

An ACC review of air rescue and ambulance services is on-going. ACC’s stance is that a slightly longer response time but with more expert medical assistance was preferable to the shorter time frame that local rescue helicopters now provide.

“I was surprised when an ACC consultant told us that time was not of the essence when we see time and again that basic first aid and getting people to hospital quickly saves lives,” said Mr Funnell.

“It’s important to have a good base of rescue personnel and aircraft, particularly ambulance aircraft, available for emergencies. New Zealand has run down its military operations so there is more reliance on civilians in an emergency.

“If we had a tsunami on the North Island east coast, there would be huge loss of life. In Southwest Aceh in Indonesia, for example, all the bridges were lost, so they couldn’t get supplies through by road. That’s why helicopters are needed.”

Mr Funnell, who is managing director of Taupo-based commercial, rescue and air ambulance company, Helicopter Services BOP Limited, went with a team of five from subsidiary Heli Harvest Ltd to ferry water pumps, tents, mosquito nets and other equipment to stricken villages in the area around provincial capital Banda Aceh.

Under contract to Oxfam, the team used its big Russian-built Mi-8 helicopters, normally used in New Zealand for removal of felled trees from difficult sites, to fly up to four tonnes of equipment three or four times a day to affected areas.

“There was no readily available air rescue service there and what was there was unable to cope,” Mr Funnell said.

“A lot of people in outlying areas died of their injuries and from secondary effects like diarrhoea. It was terrible to see mothers and children desperate for food. People were drinking from salt-water contaminated wells.”

Mr Funnell has been involved in rescue helicopter work most of his working life and is a founding trustee of the Philips Search and Rescue Trust.

“I got into this work because I saw the need,” he said.

“Being a pilot, I saw several accidents in which people had died because help was not there quickly enough. It’s disappointing that ACC can’t see it.

“In recent years there has been a tendency to reduce the use of helicopters, an obvious trend to minimise their use. I have no trouble with not going on non-serious jobs. But the need for a helicopter should be left up to local medical experts to decide.”

Mr Funnell is recognised as one of New Zealand’s most experienced helicopter pilots so it is no surprise that he was called on to help in Victoria’s bush fires.

“I’m away from my desk again as our company has a policy of providing very experienced mission controllers no matter where our aircraft are working in the world.

“Our operating practices are similar to other companies. Pilots come to us with between 300 and 400 hours to further their initial qualifications but we’re lucky if we can keep them for six months to a year before major airlines take them to meet its own demands for more pilots.

“So there is a general shortage of pilots throughout the country. With the Government reducing its contribution to student pilot funding plus a shortage of engineers, it means tough times ahead for the aviation industry.”


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