Lucky to live


A Queenstown heliski guide has miraculously survived at

thump to the head from a whirling helicopter blade.

The blade ripped veteran guide Jef Desbecker’s hat and broke the skin on top of his head.

The Harris Mountains Heliski chief guide puts the incident last month down to a moment’s inattention.

With a chopper coming in to pick up clients in Wanaka’s Harris Mountains, he was distracted by a snowboarding client not paying attention. Desbecker recalls: “As I turned

my head back to the helicopter, I hadn’t crouched down.

“So thwack – I just got capped on the top of the head. It buckled my knees and I dropped to the ground.
“It felt like somebody had taken a really fat board and smacked me straight down on top of the head.

“Mentally, I did freak out a bit because I realised what had happened.”

Incredibly, all Desbecker had to show for his brush with death was a hole in the top of a multi-coloured woollen hat his wife had just knitted – and a 2.5cm scratch on the head.

“It broke the skin on the top of my head, that was it – it didn’t need stitches.

“I’m probably the only person on the planet who can say he’s been tapped on the head with a helicopter blade.”
His head hurt “a little” but he didn’t lose consciousness.

Fellow guides checked him out, he did two more runs with clients, then drove them back to Queenstown.

That night he went to hospital to have his scratch checked – but only because he couldn’t see the top of his head himself.

“It’s all healed up.”

Desbecker didn’t take time off work but saw a doctor for post-traumatic stress and underwent hypnotherapy.

His boss Mark Quickfall, who owns both Harris Mountains Heliski and The Helicopter Line, says Desbecker’s “extremely lucky”.

CAA spokesman Bill Sommer says rotor strikes are rare – but usually result in serious injury or death.

“You’ve got something that’s spinning around at just below the speed of sound and if it hits you the force involved is enormous.”

Debriefs have been held with CAA, Helicopter Line, the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association and the newly-formed NZ Heliski Operators Group.

Heli-guiding for 14 years and chief guide for three, Desbecker, 56, calls the incident a wake-up call.

“No matter who you are, how much you’ve done, how good you are, accidents happen, incidents happen, and you need to be 100 per cent attentive all the time.”

Helicopter Line boss Quickfall says CAA has investigated and advised they won’t be taking any “punitive action” against any party.

His company’s already acted on draft CAA findings, he says.

Specifically, it’s changed pick-up procedures so guides remain with clients – as used to be the case – rather than provide visual references for pilots.

CAA’s Sommer says the aviation watchdog has a DVD on safety around helicopters – ironically, he notes, The Helicopter Line was involved in making it.