There is way more to Captain Susan Dinkelacker than meets the eye.
The experienced Northland Rescue Helicopter pilot has been flying Emergency Medical Services (EMS) since 2001, despite some breaks to fly off-shore oil rigs and to focus solely on art – her award winning sculptures and wood carving in particular.
“I grew up in South Africa in a family of glider pilots and Mum had a commercial aeroplane licence. My Dad designed and built and flew his own sailplanes, which won championships and set records,” says Sue.
“I don’t remember learning to fly. I just remember at five-years-old telling my friends how to catch a five-metre thermal. And at the end of high school I decided I wanted to be a pilot.”
That’s when her Dad sat her down and told Sue she was unlikely to get a job as a pilot because she was a girl and there were many military-trained men pilots available at the time. She was advised to rather get a job that paid and fly gliders for fun on weekends. So she studied and worked as a secretary while setting three world gliding records which stand to this day!
After saving money working in an advertising agency, Sue left for America where she had her first helicopter flight at 24-years-old. She was fascinated, returned to South Africa and worked for her Dad.
“I told him I wanted to go solo in a helicopter. I could afford only one half hour helicopter lesson per fortnight. Then the secretary of the flying school left so I asked to be paid in lessons while staying rent-free with my parents – which is how I got my private licence. The South African government gave one grant a year for a commercial licence and I got it. Then I got my big break with the largest helicopter company in the country.”
Her first job was flying a 22-seater Sikorsky 61, something of an off-shore flying bus. Sue then ended up doing heli-logging in the United States – flying logs out of the forest underslung under the helicopter. It was an amazing experience with amazing people.
Upon returning to South Africa, Sue gained her captaincy and met her husband Pete, a mechanical draughtsman.
After a time sailing across the Atlantic, up to South America, Caribbean and the USA, they decided to settle in New Zealand. After two days in the country they realised it was home and in 2007 Northland became home. Sue’s current role at Northland Rescue Helicopter began in late 2019 and she loves it.
“There are times with the rescue chopper when you are really busy and it takes all of your energy but when I am on stand-by I can think creatively about the art I want to do. I have huge respect for the people I work with, and working as a team when someone really needs the service is extremely satisfying. I am in awe of the paramedics and hospital staff.
“When you are flying in storms and clouds you have to be so accurate and disciplined but it’s what we train for and why we prepare so well. No one else gets to see the things we see. It’s a remarkable job.
“The pilots who fly the Northland Rescue Helicopter have all arrived from different places and backgrounds. There is a wealth of experience that makes it a special place to be a part of. It’s great to be able to help the Northland community – they are so supportive and generous.”
Just as Sue is generous in her time with the formation of the Haast Club – one of Aotearoa’s most exclusive fraternities.
Named after Haast’s eagle, the charitable club is open only to those who have been rescued by helicopter. Sue says the now-extinct bird of prey is the perfect emblem to represent the club.
To be eligible to join the Haast Club, a person must have been flown as a patient in a helicopter or been rescued from dire circumstances by helicopter – anywhere in the world. Transfer flights between hospitals qualify. To find out more www.haastclub.com