Growing up in Dannevirke, Shaun Stewart always wanted to be a rescue helicopter pilot and now he is. After a 14-year career working in commercial flying, Shaun has joined the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter team.
“We lived on a dairy farm near the Mangatewai-iti Bridge which was a notorious black-spot for accidents, and therefore a regular destination for rescue helicopters,” he says. “Watching them work was a real inspiration.”
Keen to start working towards his goal, Shaun was aged just 17 when he had his first go on the controls during a helicopter trial flight and, having decided he liked it, the following year headed to Helipro’s Paraparaumu flight school.
“I was only 18 when I completed my CPL (Commercial Pilots Licence) which was young, but I was really focused,” he says.
“Then I was lucky enough to get offered a gig doing charters and scenic flights over in Margaret River, Australia, and I’ve flown ever since.”
That early start means that, while still in his early 30s, Shaun managed to knock off the thousands of PIC (pilot-in-command) flying hours required by Search & Rescue Services Ltd, the company formed by five North Island trusts (including the Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust) to manage ops across eight bases.
And his later work in agricultural flying gave him the experience flying in challenging conditions also required by SRSL.
“In that environment you do a lot of low-level flying so you have to be on your game,” he says. “I come from a rural background so it was great to be dealing with people in that community. It felt like going back to where I came from.”
More recently, however, he has lived in Auckland flying for high-end charter company Helicopter Me.
“I spent five years in Auckland so there’s definitely things I’ll miss, but being in Gisborne is closer to home, and has more of that rural vibe I’m comfortable with.
“More importantly, flying rescue helicopters is rewarding work so being able to join the team is a fantastic opportunity.
“I’m especially enjoying the real family vibe at the Gisborne base. They’re all here for one purpose, to help people, and getting to be part of that is pretty cool.”
Shaun officially joined the Eastland Rescue Helicopter team in early January and underwent a couple of weeks’ training at the SRSL-managed Taupo facility before heading to Gisborne.
Once at his new home base, he spent another two weeks off roster as he updated currencies in skill areas like using Night Vision Goggles.
Even as the newest member of the team, however, his debut shift was not the first time he had flown in the Tairāwhiti region.
“I used to do a lot of ag work up around Hicks Bay and the East Cape so it’s all pretty familiar territory,” he says.
“Then after Cyclone Gabrielle I was contracted to fly in medical supplies like blood and chemotherapy drugs, and that felt like a way to make a contribution.”
Shaun says one thing he will not miss about ag and commercial work is being stung by bees when flying hives into remote locations. “Though it is good and enjoyable work, a few stings across the day really started to add up!”
But one thing he will miss about his recent charter work is the chance to rub shoulders with the occasional super-star.
“Probably the last big one I flew was Cyndi Lauper, who was a pretty chill lady,” he says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with flying but can certainly make the day a bit more interesting.”
As the fourth pilot in the Eastland Rescue Helicopter line-up, Shaun’s arrival marks the team’s completion to 12 members — four crewmen and four critical care flight paramedics rounding out the line-up.
His arrival means the existing pilots can finally make the change from 24-hour shifts to 12 hours, a welcome respite after a challenging year.
“It is significant as our existing three pilots have been carrying that load for a long time,” says Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust chair Patrick Willock.
“We are so grateful for the sacrifices they have made to ensure this critical service continued operating 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
“But we’re also grateful that Shaun’s appointment will result in a break from those long shifts, and give them the better work-life balance they all deserve.”