Heli-man’s US gong


A Queenstown chopper pilot has been lauded in the US for rescuing climbers from the roof of the world following deadly avalanches.

In recognition of his exploits on Mt Everest over the past two years, Jason Laing last week received the Appareo Pilot of the Year Award at Helicopter Association International’s annual conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

The 700-strong audience gave him a standing ovation before a video and slideshow of his feats.

The award - one of the most prestigious of nine Salute to Excellence Awards - recognises a pilot who’s demonstrated an exceptional act or acts of professionalism.

Laing, who’s logged 6400 hours including more than 5000 hours’ mountain flying, modestly says he’s just doing his job.

“I’ve just been there when some big events have happened.”

He admits that high-altitude flying – he can fly up to 7000 metres - involves working his machine to the upper limits of its capacity.

It’s the specialist high-altitude pilot’s second international honour. 

Laing, who’s worked in the Himalayas for six seasons, travelled to Holland last September to pick up the Federation Aeronautique Internationale diploma for outstanding airmanship.

The two awards come on top of bravery awards from both the Nepalese government and the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

Laing - who’s returning to Nepal for another climbing season at the end of this month - was at the centre of the action when the Himalayan country was struck by a devastating earthquake in April last year.

One of the first pilots dispatched to survey the damage, he and other colleagues rescued about 140 climbers trapped by a collapsed icefall on Mt Everest’s Camps 1 and 2.

A year earlier, after a calamitous avalanche on Everest, he long-lined out four survivors and 13 dead climbers in conditions so bad that other pilots refused to fly.

In between both calamities, Laing also airlifted survivors caught in a blizzard on the Himalayas’ Annapurna mountain.

Laing’s Queenstown friend Peta Carey last year told Mountain Scene that the bravery involved in hovering a chopper while executing high-altitude long-line rescues is nothing short of incredible.

“It’s not just the altitude, it’s the air temperature and air pressure.

“Jason’s very canny in terms of stripping that machine down to the absolute last razoo to make it as light as possible.

“He can only take so much fuel or he’s too heavy, so he’s only got limited time.”

Since last year’s Nepalese earthquake, Laing’s also been working with the Himalayan Trust, set up by Everest’s Kiwi conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary in 1960, to raise funds for a rescue building at Lukla, at the gateway to Mt Everest.