Air ambulance bid

Dr Derek Allen and Diana Watson prepare supplies for last week's trip with adopted daughter Hilda, left.

A Queenstown couple is raising money to transform an old chopper into an air ambulance for vulnerable Pacific Islanders.

Volunteers Dr Derek Allen and midwife Diana Watson, who run the non-governmental organisation TroppoDoc, returned to work in Vanuatu last week with their four-year-old daughter Hilda, who they adopted from a Vanuatuan family.

With severely-limited healthcare and transport in the developing nation of more than 80 islands, 59-year-old Allen says “a lot of unnecessary deaths” occur.

“We work there assisting the state service, which is very poor there for all these people.

“It’s really hard to find transport to take them to the hospital.”

Only one full-time nurse currently works at the Lamap Mini Hospital on Malekula Island, looking after some 20,000 people from several nearby islands. Pregnant women often have to make long journeys in canoes to be able to board a plane and fly to hospital to give birth.

The couple are spending the next month there to lend a much-needed helping hand. Allen says the helicopter, based in Dunedin, will be brought to Queenstown to be fixed up to flying standard, at a cost of about $200,000.

“It would make a massive difference to those who are critically on the edge of life.”

Allen sold his old house in Auckland to buy the two-seater Robinson R22 in 2001, which was formerly used for training exercises in Japan. He used the helicopter to save a surfer with a broken neck in the Mentawai Islands, off the western coast of Indonesia, after he bought it.

The chopper was then confiscated and impounded by the local Indonesian police chief, a recreational pilot who Allen says wanted a “free helicopter”. It was released back to him seven years later, just before an Indonesian presidential election.

The trained pilot intends to fly the upgraded chopper when he’s working on the islands, and a volunteer pilot would be on hand when he’s not based there.

“It’s a very poor country,” Allen says. “There’s so much they need. It’s quite rough out there.”

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