A helicopter from the same era as the Apollo space craft did its most valuable work in Northland
Before the Northland Rescue Helicopter chopper known as Helimed1 flew thousands of kilometres saving lives in New Zealand, she visited 41 countries on a 73,000 km circumnavigation of the world.
The 40-year-old helicopter – an iconic Sikorsky S-76A nicknamed Juliet – has retired after 23 years as part of the Northland rescue chopper fleet.
Originally owned by the King of Jordan, the Sikorsky changed hands a few times before being bought by Australian entrepreneur and aviator Dick Smith who is best known in New Zealand as the founder of Dick Smith Electronics.
Throughout 1994 and 95, Smith and his wife Pip, a photographer, used the chopper to complete the first east to west circumnavigation of the world. For most of the journey, the Smith’s flew at an altitude of 500 feet to ensure Pip was able to get the clearest photographs which are documented in the 1997 book Above the World.
“Flying [in it] was rather like sitting in the back of a station-wagon,” wrote Smith in the book. “When we flew low, I slid the windows down and enjoyed the breeze as I took in the view. It was like being in a motor vehicle a little above the road. A truly magnificent way to see the world.”
Helimed1 arrived in New Zealand in 1997 after a 10-hour “ferry flight” from Sydney via Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island flown by Reg Ellwood, Northland Rescue Helicopter’s Chief Pilot at the time.
With a flight range of three hours the S-76 model was renowned for its safety, reliability, smooth flying, brisk airspeed and long-range capability, which made it ideal for helping meet increasing demand for emergency services in the Northland region with its tricky terrain and vast distances.
Helimed1 was the first of three S-76s operated by the Northland Rescue Helicopter.
Former Northland rescue chopper CEO and Chief Pilot Pete Turnbull, who perhaps knows Juliet better than anyone, says the chopper was hugely capable, well suited to Northland’s challenging terrain, and flew many life-saving missions.
“She would always be the helicopter that would pop up when you had to do the longest, toughest jobs off-shore. She always got you through and you couldn’t help but give her a pat on the nose after you landed.”
Turnbull says during its time with the rescue service Helimed1 helped rescue more than 9,000 people in Northland, with hundreds owing their life to this “magnificent machine”.
“The Sikorsky’s are the fastest and longest-range rescue helicopters in New Zealand. Helimed1 was also involved in many rescue missions outside the region – boat rescues in the Bay of Plenty and East Cape; patient transfers out of Christchurch during the earthquakes; and the recovery of a suspected Ebola Virus patient from Gore.”
He says the chopper was designed and manufactured in the early 70s when America was going through an industrial renaissance.
“The Apollo space craft, 747 aircraft, Mustangs and Mack trucks were designed and developed during this period and that helicopter is the epitome of the sound engineering principles and quality machinery the US was producing back then.”
When news of “Juliet’s retirement” was posted on the Northland Rescue Chopper Facebook page it received more than 900 responses and 85 comments from well wishes.
“She served the people of Northland well,” says Turnbull. “Despite how old she is, it doesn’t feel like an old machine when you are flying it. When you’re sitting in it everything is there without having to move – it’s the perfect machine.”
Juliet is currently in a hangar at Whangarei Airport as arrangements for the next stage of her extraordinary life are planned.
Northland Rescue Helicopter’s two new Sikorsky C++ aircraft, which are 10 years old, have replaced Juliet and another recently decommissioned chopper known as Mike.
THE STATS – HELIMED1 (aka “JULIET”)
- 23 years in service in New Zealand
- 9,000 hours in the skies over Northland. If it took off at midnight on New Year’s Day (and could stay in the air continuously) it would land on January 12 the next year
- 22,000 takeoffs and landings at Northland Rescue Helicopter (thankfully they are equal)
- Engines started and shutdown 15,000 time This is a 4-minute process for each flight, making that 1,000 hours of extra time
- This class of helicopter requires about four hours of maintenance per flight hour, so 36,000 hours of engineering labour was spent carrying out 360 scheduled checks
- The blades rotate at 312 times a minute – that’s 168,480,000 times (before you count the ground running times).
- Tail rotor goes six times faster than main rotor, which is over a billion revolutions
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