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Flying to save lives

Life Flight helicopter crewman Julian Burn. PHOTO/EMMA BROWN

Passion and a love for saving lives is clear to see when visiting Life Flight in Wellington. Times-Age reporter EMMA BROWN spent a day in the heat of the action learning about the charity and what it does for Wairarapa.

In his 11 years as a Life Flight crewman, Julian Burn says his toughest job was a rescue in Wairarapa.

It was May 2016, and a Holden Commodore had crashed into a concrete abutment before falling into the flooded Waipoua River.

Police divers ready the wreckage of a car for removal from the middle of the swollen Waipoua River near Masterton upon which three crash survivors had huddled in the dark and cold for more than an hour before a rescue helicopter crew winched them to safety. PHOTO/FILE

Burn said the driver died on impact, but there were three people on top of the car, on a space no bigger than a coffee table, in the river that had swelled.

Upon arriving, Life Flight landed the helicopter to talk to the fire crew about the rescue.

It was dark and there were high winds, so they had to wear night vision goggles and had no room for error.

Hovering at 24 metres, they winched the paramedic down and rescued the survivors.

Before working at Life Flight, Burn worked in radio.

He went to an event and talked with someone from Life Flight who suggested he volunteer for the organisation.

The next week he did, and he never left.

“It doesn’t feel like a job,” Burn said.

On board each helicopter mission was a pilot, crewman, and either a doctor, a nurse, or a WFA intensive care paramedic.

The wreckage of a Holden Commodore GTS was winched from the middle of the Waipoua River near the Paierau Rd bridge on the outskirts of Masterton. PHOTO/FILE

He described his job as a multifaceted role – he is essentially a non-flying pilot.

On jobs, he works the GPS, monitors the flight instruments, talks to all the agencies involved in the mission, and he is also a certified emergency medical technician so he can assist the paramedic in the back of the helicopter when needed.

The helicopter, a Bolkow Kawasaki 117, can reach a top speed of 240kmh.

It follows visual flight rules which means the pilot has to have visual reference with the ground.

Burn said for rural places, like Wairarapa, the ability to get to someone in need quickly with the helicopter saved lives.

It takes about 23 minutes to get to Masterton, 36 minutes out to Castlepoint, and 15 minutes to get to Martinborough.

Burn said it took an ambulance more than an hour to reach Lake Ferry, but for a helicopter, it only took eight minutes.

Because of transfer time for places like Wairarapa, the helicopter was often quicker.

“If I don’t go there once a shift, it’s quite surprising,” Burn said.

The helicopter can respond to ambulance jobs, neonatal and paediatric emergencies, urgent medical transfers to hospitals in Masterton, Wellington, Hutt, and beyond.

The jobs they are called to are varied.

Last month they went 80km offshore to a sinking boat to rescue three people.

“It’s interesting,” he said.

“You don’t really know what you are going to get.”

Crewman Julian Burn winching from Life Flight’s Westpac Rescue helicopter. PHOTO/LINDSAY KEATS

On the helicopter, they have equipment for search and rescue such as night vision goggles, a rescue winch, infrared search camera, and intensive care medical equipment such as defibrillators, heart rate monitors, and transport neonatal incubators.

Burn said they used the winch to help for a marine rescue, trampers, beaches, or forestry missions a few times each month.

He said there was always something to do on base.

Being so close to the water in Wellington, they were always fighting corrosion with the helicopter.

He joked, “I’ve washed this helicopter more than my car”.

Anyone wanting more information on Life Flight’s work or wanting to donate can visit lifeflight.org.nz.

This is the first in a three-part Life Flight mini-series.

Up next: Fixed wing jobs.

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