A Day in the Life of an Aspiring Helicopter Pilot

“An exciting job? Nah, not really it’s just another day in the office”…..

I beg to differ, but this is the kind of laconic, self-deprecating comment you come to expect from the Wanaka locals. In this case, just another day is how James Ford refers to his job as a helicopter pilot and his office happens to be the spectacular Southern Alps of Mount Aspiring National Park.

Not exciting, huh? It is compared to flying my office desk.

James and his wife Alex, also an accomplished pilot, own and operate Aspiring Helicopters which is based not far from Treble Cone ski area in Wanaka’s Matukituki Valley. Their purpose built hangar at Cattle Flat Station, a high country farm which runs sheep, cattle and deer, is just 20 minutes drive from Lake Wanaka. It’s on the farm – run by Alex’s sister and father (also a pilot) - that James’ schedule for the day begins with the (not particularly exciting) task of mustering some deer from the hills above the farm down to the paddocks of the valley below.

But this is mustering deer by helicopter, of course!… Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff around these parts…

As we lift off to the whop-whop-whop thrum of the rotor blades I am suddenly startled by the sound of police sirens. Slightly baffled (and deafened) I ask whether we’re actually chasing a criminal fugitive rather than deer – but James patiently explains that the sirens are used to help herd the deer down to the valley. James goes on to describe how NZ mountain flying was actually pioneered in this region of NZ by deer hunters in the 1960’s - initially for culling, but later for live deer recovery and this is how many of the early deer farms in the South Island were established.

The pioneering spirit of these early pilots has been immortalised by Sir Tim Wallis who not only revolutionised NZ’s venison industry but through his love of aviation also founded the world famous Warbirds Over Wanaka air show. Sir Tim famously used to roar around the Wanaka region in his vintage Spitfire, and was even known to buzz skiers on the Treble Cone ski field from time to time. Which even James concedes might have been quite exciting...

Deer successfully rounded up, James points the chopper across Lake Wanaka and towards Makarora and a region of the National Park where the Department of Conservation has arranged for Aspiring Helicopters to drop the materials needed to repair one of the Park’s backcountry huts. Commercial flying, such as conservation work with DOC, frost protection for the wineries of Central Otago (flying low over the vines to prevent the air freezing at night) and other agricultural work make up a significant portion of James’ flight hours although I am still to be convinced that this is really as mundane as he makes out.

For the afternoon Alex has taken a booking for a scenic glacier flight and snow-landing from an Australian family on holiday in Wanaka. It’s the first time that the family’s young children have ever seen snow and even James cannot disguise his wry smile as the kids giggle making snow angels on  top of the Isobel Glacier and have their first ever snowball fight. Tourism is an integral and enjoyable part of Aspiring Helicopters business – in the summer the proximity to the huge glaciers of blue-ice that flank Mt Aspiring offer the perfect scenery for scenic flights and in winter James & Alex are kept busy with heli-skiing operations. As it turns out, the Wanaka region has the biggest  terrain outside of North America.

With the flight schedule completed for the day, we share a cup of tea around the hearth of the Cattle Flat farmhouse kitchen, but the pilots of Aspiring Helicopters can never be sure that work is over for the day. The team are regularly on call for NZ Land Search & Rescue (LandSAR) and can be called out at any time of day or night to help rescue injured hikers or mountaineers. This component of life as a pilot was documented in a recent TV series which followed the team for a summer season and captured the incredible commitment, courage and skill of Aspiring Helicopter’s pilots during rescue operations.

Helicopters play a vital role in the infrastructure of an alpine region like Wanaka and Mt Aspiring National Park, and whilst they are a common sight in the area, there is still something fundamentally thrilling – and, yes James, exciting - about strapping yourself into a chopper and plugging into the headset. The vast variety of roles that Aspiring Helicopters perform in the region from search & rescue, to film or TV work (you may spot their helicopters in the new series Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls) and heli-skiing or scenic flights means that no two days are ever alike. Couple this with constantly changing mountain weather and the uncertainly of when you’ll get your next emergency call, and I would argue that this is perhaps one of the most exciting and challenging jobs in New Zealand.

Just another day in the office? Yeah right.

More information from www.aspiringhelicopters.co.nz

Just mention this article and receive $50 off a Glacier Landing flight until December 31st 2013.

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