Spence brings decades of experience to helicopter rescue

Even lifesavers need to have a life and members of the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter team get great cover from Search and Rescue Services Ltd colleagues like pilot Spence Putwain.

Spence Putwain’s dad had been a navigator in the RNZAF’s 75 Squadron, but that’s not why he got into flying.

“I grew up in a farming area of Papakura where there were always planes going over and I was just fascinated by them,” he says.

“So the moment I left school, at 16, I headed down the road to Ardmore Airport to take on an engineering apprenticeship.”

That was in 1974, nearly half a century ago, and from there Spence trained as a pilot and has flown both rotor and fixed-wing aircraft the length and breadth of the country.

In recent times he’s flown as a cover pilot at the eight bases overseen by Search and Rescue Services Ltd (SRSL), the company formed to carry out operations on behalf of five rescue helicopter trusts, including Gisborne’s Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust (EHRT).

And that’s seen him become a regular at Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter’s Gisborne hangar, where he’ll remain until the end of 2023 while recruiting is underway for the team’s fourth permanent pilot.

That’s not too much of a strain, Spence says . . . he lives not too far away, at Awakeri, so when he’s not rostered or on call he can nip home or head to Whakatane to spend time with his teenage son.

In between times he’s in-house at the accommodation installed when EHRT’s Gisborne hangar was built around a decade ago.

Helicopter rescue can be challenging work – before heading to Gisborne the week after Cyclone Gabrielle, Spence flew for SRSL in Hawke’s Bay, rescuing flood-trapped residents from rooftops and carrying out welfare checks around the devastated Esk Valley.

But it was even more challenging in the 1980s when he started his first commercial flying job in the notoriously-dangerous live deer recovery industry.

To get there, and while still at Ardmore, he’d put himself through training to fly fixed-wing aircraft and training in helicopters was included as an “add-on”.

He then got a job working on the fleet for a helicopter company and fell in love with rotory-wing aircraft.

“I was also really passionate about hunting so working in deer recovery combined both those things.”

After nine years flying in some of the most remote areas of New Zealand deer farms were becoming well stocked, a livestock tax was introduced, and the bottom fell out of the recovery industry.

So Spence pivoted to a new area of flying, basing himself in Taupo to combine the commercial work of aerial spraying with service in helicopter rescue.

“We’d be out spraying but when the pager went off, we’d drop our gear and head off to do the rescue,” he says.

“I found I really loved that part of the job so after a couple of years there I moved to fly the Westpac rescue helicopter out of Wellington.”

Ever the roaming pilot, Spence then relocated to Auckland to spend five years flying both the Westpac rescue helicopter and spotter aircraft for NZ Police, then another five piloting what was then the Child Flight Air Ambulance.

“Then I thought I’d have a go at being an airline pilot so for a couple of years I flew for Freedom Air and Air New Zealand,” he says.

“It was fun but then I had a mad rush of blood to the head, went out and bought a Hughes 500 helicopter, and went back to Taupo to set up my own business.”

Spence says he enjoyed operating Lakeland Aviation as a one-man-band but always missed helicopter rescue so by 2014 he was back in the fold, first with Whangarei’s Northland Emergency Services Trust, then joining SRSL.

And though he’s now been around long enough (just) to qualify for a SuperGold Card, he has no plans to stop just yet.

“Helicopter rescue can be a tough business . . . you see a lot of people in a lot of desperate situations,” he says.

“But it is meaningful work that I love so I’m just going to keep on doing it.”

CAPTION: A STEADY HAND: Having just marked 43 years as a commercial pilot, Spence Putwain brings decades of experience when offering cover for the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter team.