Rescue Helicopter review ‘overdue’

Rotorua helipad near Rotorua Hospital.

Since the rescue helicopter service was pulled from Rotorua as a base late last year, local skies have been busy – day and night.

Hardly a day has passed since the Christmas/New Year holiday period, when helicopters have not landed on the pad at Rotorua Hospital with patients admitted for treatment. Or in one recorded instance, a helicopter from Tauranga has flown to Rotorua to tend a patient here.

The choppers have left either Tauranga or Taupo to transport patients from various parts of the Bay of Plenty.

Despite assurances at a political level, few believe Rotorua is better off without the helicopter service.

Certainly, members of the imminent formation Rotorua Rescue Helicopter Trust don’t think so.

The review cut only Rotorua from a broadly-based North Island service. Initially, incandescent with rage, a Rotorua delegation headed by Lakes DHB chairman Deryck Shaw and Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick marched on Parliament.

They were given assurances the services would he retained. On their return, Philips suddenly announced the service was to be cut, with Tauranga and Taupo retained. The decision led to a launch pad of strident protest from Rotorua.

If the politicians had lost their will to fight for the area – Steve Chadwick was quoted as saying she was “assured that Rotorua would not be disadvantaged by not having a helicopter based locally” – several prominent citizens had not.

Flying times may have convinced her. And knowledge twin-engine helicopters would reach critical destinations quickly, with modernised on-board equipment to deal with emergencies.

At least that appears the line trotted out by Philips, which on its website pleads for money much like Lord Kitchener’s famed “your country needs you” mantra of World War 1.

Under what’s termed as optimal flying conditions, Rotorua is 14 minutes flying time from Tauranga, 18 minutes from Taupo and 26 minutes from Hamilton.

This doesn’t take into account the number of flights from Rotorua into the Bay of Plenty hinterland and limited hospital resources in Taupo, from which often patients are transferred to Rotorua.

At least in one quarter, a review of the service was needed.

Bay of Plenty Community Trust – which trades under BayTrust - chief executive Alistair Rhodes, which trades under BayTrust, says a review was overdue by some 10 to 15 years.

It approved grants to the Philips Search and Rescue Trust, which received a $50,000 wedge in 2017. Alistair has confirmed no application was received from the rescue trust in 2018, prompting thoughts the trust had made its decision to cull the Rotorua service long before it was made public.

That Philips retained is bases in Tauranga and Taupo incurred ire from within Rotorua, leading to an informal meeting of a community leaders bent on reinstating the helicopter schedule which had been intrinsic to Rotorua since 1992.

Then, the essentially district-wide service operated from Rotorua Airport before someone had the bright idea of constructing a helipad on land adjacent Rotorua Hospital.

The pad overlooks Kuirau Park, which proved an ideal corridor for landings.

With tourism passenger Cessna aircraft flights and now helicopters – not forgetting scheduled commercial flights – the Rotorua skies did resemble a small window of the Battle of Britain on a busy day.

Why Rotorua seemed ruthlessly cut from the service can be explained politically. The dying throes of the Clark-led Labour Government had decided to cut Rotorua some 11 years ago.

But this notion came under review in the Key National years, which could have reversed the decision. Last year, the new Labour-led government approved the proposal to cut Rotorua, apparently despite assurances to the local delegation by the Minister David Clark it would not.

This hasn’t prevented Todd McClay tweaking the ailerons as it were, for he has dogmatically tried to reinstate the service as he has been central to local moves in forming a local trust, acting as the settlor.

That trust has been chaired by Rotorua businessman Mark Mortimer, who heads a group of such notables as retired pilot Ron Taylor, surveyor Luke Martin and Sandra Kai Fong, a lawyer and elected member of the patrician Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust. Another is prominent businessman Paul Sumner, a timber merchant, who donated generously to the construction of the helipad and hangar.

Sandra Kai Fong and Luke Martin, once fixed term trustees of the Tauranga-based BayTrust, were strong advocates for funding to the Phillips service in Rotorua.

Once formed, Mark Mortimer, with 12 years’ experience as air crew, is expected to chair the committee.  

Meanwhile, the BayTrust’s chief executive officer, Alistair Rhodes, who also has experience in the airline industry and was for a time chief executive at Rotorua Airport, says he felt a review of the service was 10-15 years overdue.

The trust had funded the helicopter service for a number of years for around $20,000 to $30,000.

It also won interim naming rights concomitant to sponsorship.

But, “we never really wanted it because there’s no value for us selling our name out there – we’re not like a Westpac or a Trustpower. That was supposed to be on an interim basis, and that was about 10 years ago”.

“We then contributed $200,000 a year, but it was only supposed to be a short-term measure while they found another commercial naming rights sponsor, which they never really found.

“And then we knew about the review, about how many helicopters were needed and where they were needed around the country, was underway which we really needed to happen.”

The S and R organisation was asked apropos of the review whether it required funding, since it was announced Rotorua as a base was cut.

As an interim measure, a $50,000 grant helped funding in 2017. It preceded the outcome of the review, Rhodes says.

“The review dragged on for about 18 months longer than we were anticipating at this stage.

“But since that application, we haven’t had any further applications for funding from the volunteer Search and Rescue Trust, probably because – [it’s] my gut instinct – they knew that the [Rotorua] helicopter was likely to be discontinued and they probably had sufficient reserves,” Rhodes said.

Had they done so, Alistair says, the S and R trust would have been asked to justify the need for the funding. “But they never came to us for an application.”

Will the new operation, the proposed new trust when formed for Rotorua, qualify for funding?

“I’ve sent messages to some of the key people involved in looking at all other helicopter operations in New Zealand. They’d be wanting to secure a naming rights sponsor you can lock up for five years and you’d need $200,000-$300,000 a year out of them at least.”

Not only was funding scarce for the S and R trust in the last 10 years, but negotiations with ACC and the Ministry of Health could also prove an ordeal.

“Until those two key pieces are resolved it’s not much point having any other discussions with them until they’ve resolved them.”

Referring to the review Alastair Rhodes says:

“It’s just that it gets really political. And helicopters in New Zealand – where they’re based – is based on politics.

“This review was crying out to happen about 15/20 years ago. But politics always sort of got in the way. We [the BayTrust] don’t want to get involved in the review. We just said there needs to be a review round optimal bases where helicopters need to be.

“Every town in New Zealand would want a helicopter runway, but you have to make calls where its efficient to operate them.”

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