Call for Queenstown’s own rescue chopper

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A dedicated rescue helicopter service is on Queenstown’s horizon – but can’t come soon enough for a leading local volunteer.

The Lakes District Air Rescue Trust (LDART), which oversees increasingly busy aero-medical and search and rescue services in the Wakatipu, is building up to its own dedicated rescue chopper and crew.

At the moment, LDART has a deal with Heliworks Queenstown and Te Anau’s Southern Lakes Helicopters to always have a commercial chopper on standby.

For mountain or alpine missions, the volunteer Queenstown Alpine Cliff Rescue team is roped in.

LDART mission numbers for the year to August are up 23 per cent on the previous 12 months – and average about five call-outs a week.

LDART secretary-manager Tony Hill wants a dedicated chopper and crew, predicting it’ll be four years away when the existing Government contract is renewed, adding if missions keep climbing at the existing rate “we should be able to financially sustain a dedicated machine” by then.

Alpine Cliff Rescue team leader Chris Prudden says it’s positive news, but adds: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s necessary right now.”

“Being mindful of our terrain and where we live, it’s about time,” Prudden says.

LDART is contracted by Government to have a chopper at the ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and must aim to get airborne within 15 minutes of a callout.

However, Prudden says it’s impossible for an alpine rescue trip using volunteers like his ACR team to be airborne within 15 minutes.

“That’s impossible with volunteers. You have to pay people to stand around and wait and that includes people with specialist alpine training.

“You can’t be prepared in 15 minutes to go to the side of Mt Aspiring or Mr Earnslaw as you have to take a hell of a lot more gear with you. You can’t even load it in the helicopter in 15 minutes.”

Prudden adds: “It would not take much – a politician or someone to drive over a bank in their car then all of a sudden they’d recognise it’s quite specialised country here and we need specialised people to be able to deal with it.

“That service doesn’t exist in a professional state – it’s all voluntary, same as the fire guys.”

The service offered by LDART is improving all the time – the new contract signed in April involves having a highly trained St John paramedic aboard to assess patients on the spot. It means victims requiring specialised base hospital treatment in Dunedin or Invercargill can now be flown there direct – instead of having to dot down and be assessed at Frankton’s Lakes District Hospital first.

Hill says being able to avoid a Frankton stopover is a real timesaver: “It would be at least an hour [quicker].”

Prudden adds another thing the rescue service needs is a two-man winch so it can pull people out of the drink instead of just spotting them.

“If there’s someone in the water we can’t get them out without a boat. That’s illogical to me,” he says.

“If a helicopter can fly in above them, drop the winch-man down and pick people out of the water … then boom, done.”

Recent ACR missions saw them rescue snowboarders trapped on the west face of the Remarkables and re-
cover the body of climber Jamie Vinton-Boot who fell in an avalanche in August.