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Helicopter pilot training takes off at Whitianga airfield

By Tony Stickley

If you’ve ever fancied learning to fly helicopters to buzz around over glittering Mercury Bay or even just to give it a try, this could be the moment you have been

waiting for.

Whitianga husband and wife, Brook and Rachel Johnstone, have set up Mercury Bay Helicopters Ltd offering training courses out of the local airfield in one of the most modern and safest rotor-wing aircraft on the market.

But for anyone with a hankering to be at the controls of this very beautiful machine, a word of warning: it won’t be cheap. Brook, 65, is a veteran aviator with years of experience flying helicopters in rugged conditions in Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma for various oil, gold and copper explorations as well as flying support helicopters for the logging industry.

Rachel was the first female paramedic to be lowered by winch from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter to help people injured and in distress. They have linked up with two highly experienced helicopter instructors, Shamus Howard, who runs Aviation Training Ltd and Adventure Helicopters out of Tauranga, and Dan Mulligan, who does all sorts of commercial helicopter work around the Coromandel, such as heavy lifting, agricultural work and scenic flights operating out of Whitianga.

While Shamus is currently based in Tauranga, he is planning to move full time to Cooks Beach. Brook and Rachel bought the French-made Guimbal Cabri G2 in Christchurch in September last year and flew it up to Whitianga.

While Brook was coy about the actual price they paid, the basic model with no extras, costs $750,000 new. “We bought it for a bit less than that, but it has only done 150 hours [flying time], so it is virtually new,” he said. It is the same model as former Prime Minister John Key has bought to learn to fly as a hobby. “His is a new one, but I don’t know if it has been delivered yet,” Brook said.

Rachel and Brook say that they bought the helicopter for their own pleasure, conscious that it was one heck of an investment with some eye-watering ongoing expenses. “What we were going to do with it was just use it for scenic flights for ourselves, but we wanted it to pay for itself as much as possible because the insurance and running costs all add up,” said Rachel.

Brook added, “The insurance alone is around $37,000 a year, so we decided to use it for helicopter pilot training to bring in some income, and that is where the agreement with Shamus and Dan, as instructors, comes in.” Those never-ending expenses give a clue as to the costs of taking flying lessons. “It is going to cost $790 an hour, including GST,” Brook said, adding that that was fairly standard.

Dan said that it would take a minimum of 50 flying hours for someone to get their private helicopter licence and a minimum of 150 hours to get a commercial licence, though trainees were able to go solo after 20 hours flying. He added that there were all sorts of tests that had to be passed, including: meteorology; aviation law; flight radio telephony; aircraft technical knowledge; air navigation; and human factors. Brook said it usually takes three months full-time to get a licence or 12 months part-time to get a private pilot’s licence.

All up, the cost of a commercial pilot’s licence would be around $120,000 while a private helicopter licence would be $40,000 in round figures. While the hourly fees might seem a bit steep, Brook says that it is relatively cheaper now to learn to fly than it was 20 or 30 years ago, when wages and salaries are factored in. “In 1981 it was $200 an hour and I was earning $125 a week,” he said. He believed the courses would appeal more to the recreational flyer than to people wanting to be commercial pilots.

“There are not going to be dozens and dozens of people wanting to do it, but there could be half a dozen or so,” said Brook, acknowledging that it was not a cheap hobby. As the aircraft is a two-seater with dual controls, it is not possible to be used for general scenic fights for tourists. However, there was always the possibility of people going up for an introductory trial, to see if it was something they might enjoy. “If someone’s husband or wife expresses an interest to fly a helicopter, they might buy them a voucher for an hour’s flight,” said Dan.

“They could go out in the helicopter, learn how the controls work and even get to take the controls in flight.” Brook said he would also be happy to rent out the helicopter to suitably qualified fliers. Brook says the helicopter is the most modern available with a very good safety rating. Powered by a 160HP Lycoming piston engine, it is built largely of carbon fibre for ultra-lightness with a carbon fibre main rotor, the tail rotor being a fenestron tail, that is to say a fan instead of a tail rotor, all enclosed within a casing. It has not only improved safety, but was quieter as well.

Rachel said that when Brook first suggested buying the aircraft, she was “resistant” but eventually he talked her around.

“Now I am thinking of learning to fly myself,” she said.


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