Waikato Then & Now | Philips Search and Rescue Trust

Waikato Then & Now

In an ever-expanding fleet of central North Island rescue helicopters, the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter has undergone a transformational change, unrecognisable from its humble origins in 1987.

In its small beginnings, Hamilton was equipped solely with a squirrel helicopter capable of flying only in daylight hours.  Two pilots with no place to call base and hospital nurses home tennis court substituted for a landing pad.  Charged with the enormous task of securing sponsorship and encouraging community support, including funding to build a hangar and helipad, it’s fair to say the fledgling service faced challenges.

However, with a small team of volunteers, support soon emerged. “Being associated with the region’s first and only community rescue helicopter service appealed to most businesses and the community at large; it was a highly visible cause to support,” said Grant Bremner, founding pilot. “Trustbank, who later became Westpac, came on board as foundation sponsor and continue as principal naming rights sponsor today.”

In 1995, the introduction of the Bell 222 helicopter, with IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) capability, was a game-changer, enabling pilots to navigate night missions under instrument guidance, in conditions with limited visibility.

The unmistakable sound of the Bell 222’s approach overhead, day or night, to rescue from dense bush, roadside, river, mountain or sea was a symbol of sheer overwhelming relief for over 10 thousand people who owed their lives to the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter airlifting them to safety and security.

The life-saving missions of the crew in the Bell 222, cemented the rescue helicopter’s place in the minds and hearts of the Waikato and King Country communities.  From its humble beginnings, the expansion of the rescue helicopter into the fully-fledged air emergency medical service it is today has been nothing short of astonishing.

Due to the growing needs of the community, the Trust scoured the global market for a helicopter to operate as a primary machine to work alongside the Bell helicopter that was now looking towards a graceful retirement after long and loyal service.

Fitted with single pilot IFR, the chosen helicopter, the BK-117, was a perfect fit for the three current pilots of the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter, who had plenty of experience with this feature, routinely operating with single-pilot-under-IFR conditions for many years.

Previously based in Honiara, the winch capable BK-117, had been used to support Australian Defence Force personnel after political unrest in the Solomon Islands.  The helicopter was flown under its own power, for over 21 hours and 2,117 nautical miles, to arrive in New Zealand.  It was fitted out with avionics to be rescue-ready to serve the people of the Waikato, King Country and Coromandel regions by 2013.

Today, rising demand for the rescue helicopter’s life-saving service shows no signs of abating as is evidenced by its substantial increase in mission numbers, including the full support coverage it gives to the wider Coromandel Peninsula.  Logging a record-breaking total of over 100 potentially life-saving missions in two consecutive months in 2020 alone, the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter has touched the lives of more than 14,063 patients since inception.

What began with one pilot more than three decades ago, is now operating with a flight workforce of 20, consisting of pilots, crewmen and in-house Intensive Care Paramedics, (ICPs); the addition of the latter enabling life-transforming medical treatment outcomes and dramatically reduced response times, thus significantly raising levels of patient care.

The purchase in 2019 of a second BK-117 twin-engine helicopter is further evidence of growing demand and of the Trust’s investment and commitment in meeting technological and navigational expectations.

Today, the Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter is raising the bar and leading the charge as an example of what’s possible for all emergency air rescue services in New Zealand when operating at the highest standards of excellence, carried out by the most skilled air rescue professionals in the country.

The Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter has come of age.


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Your support ensures rescue helicopters are available to your community.
Your rescue helicopter can be airborne in 10 minutes and, in a life or death situation, this speed and agility can make all the difference. The timely assistance that rescue helicopters provide can reduce disability and improve survival – the sooner treatment begins, the greater chance of patient recovery.

We are partially funded by a government contract with National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO). We rely heavily on the generosity of sponsors and the community to help fund the shortfall that allows us to be rescue ready 24/7, 365 days of the year. This crucial financial support ensures our rescue helicopter can continue to bring life-saving equipment, rescue personnel, and intensive care paramedics directly to the patient.

Without your support, your rescue helicopter would not be able to remain operational on a 24/7, 365 day a year basis. This could mean a serious delay in people being rescued or transported to hospital for urgent treatment.

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