Pilot Sam Murtagh

Sam Murtagh never knows what each day will bring – as one of the pilots for the Northland Rescue Helicopters, his days are different, exciting, emotional and sometimes, quiet and full of paperwork.

After six years, he knows there will never be a pattern to his days – every job is different, whether it’s a long-distance rescue flight or a patient transfer from one hospital to another.

“I started as a junior pilot, working here appealed to me as you gain experience flying in bad weather and at night with night vision goggles, plus you get to fly a more technically advanced multi-engine helicopter than what’s commonly found in the general aviation sector. That experience is hard to come by. These days, the passion for my work comes from a love of flying, knowing I am helping people, and also that I just don’t know what I am in for each work day,” Sam says.

In 2016, the Northland rescue helicopters flew 916 flights, a marked increase from 2015 when they flew 863. With 12 pilots in their crew, they work on a rostered system of four days on, four days off – working 24 hours shifts as its never known when an emergency flight is required.

And you never know what the next call will be – a hospital transfer, a call to someone injured in far reaching rural areas; a severely injured person from a car crash; or even someone sick or injured out to sea.

With some of the most highly-capable rescue helicopters in the country, the Northland crew are often called upon when long-distance flying is required.

“One such flight was to retrieve a suspected ebola patient from Gore and transport her to Christchurch. We were tasked because our helicopter was the only one big enough to fit the specialised isolation pod inside the cabin. Fortunately for the patient, she didn’t have ebola. The entire trip was around 12 hours flight time which is a lot for an emergency services helicopter, its likely to be the longest helicopter mission carried out within New Zealand.”

“We have also undertaken off-shore winching from many types of sea vessels, cruise ships, container ships and yachts etc.  Due to the long range capability of our helicopter, another memorable trip involved flying off the coast of New Plymouth to a commercial fishing boat. We were asked to winch a sick crewman from the vessel and medivac him to hospital. Flying 180 miles away from land in the dark and only surrounded by treacherous ocean waters is not for the faint-hearted.

It was pitch black and poor weather, so it took us about 80 minutes each way, this allowed us 10 minutes to winch the patient onboard and return with the legal amount of fuel reserves. By the time we were nearing land on our return, the sun was just coming up over the North Island, it was certainly a beautiful sight to see and it was a relief for everyone onboard to see dry land again.”

But the hardest is often transporting kids, says Sam.

“It’s never a nice situation where a child is hurt or sick. Flying the helicopter to them with our equipment and advanced paramedics onboard, means I know I’m getting them the best possible care they can get until they reach the hospital.

“In one case, we actually had a baby delivered on board while we were flying a patient in labour to Auckland – that was definitely a memorable experience,” he said.

“This is by far the most rewarding job I have had. I started doing it for my love of flying, but over the years I have realised that the service it provides to the community far outreaches anything else. Sometimes people we have flown to hospital in bad shape pay us a visit afterwards, seeing them all mended, happy and healthy is very rewarding, it makes it all worth it.”