I've told this story a few times, but I owe it to Irene who was in the Hughes 500 helicopter with me on that day.
In 2002 Melissa and I ran a small rafting and kayaking company, called Riverplay. We had bought a house near the Hokitika river mouth, it was originally the health board administration building. We renovated a room to be the showroom/sales room, built a double garage for boat and gear storage. We had exclusive access to the Arahura River as well as rafting and kayaking on several other rivers.
On the day of the crash I had been kayak guiding a German woman, Irene for the last few days. We had been to the Buller and paddled some local runs, she was amping for her first heli kayak trip. I had arranged with another rafting company who had a trip going on the Wanganui River to tag along to save the heli shuttle costs. I enlisted Ricky, a young local lad who I had been training to raft and kayak guide, to join us.
When the heli arrived it was decided that my group would fly first. It was obvious the pilot was in a hurry as he bundled us into the cockpit and his assistant loaded our boats into a net to be slung underneath. Once airborne the av gas stress eased quickly but we had only been flying for a couple of minutes before there was a very loud bang. Immediately the heli pitched forward and even though I was sitting in the back I was looking out the front windscreen at the ground, this was not good. Impulsively I said,"f**k, f**k, f**k!", thinking I was about to die and not thinking at all that I had a headset and mic on. The pilot replied,"just relax, relax, relax. Over the years I've come to realise that this was the moment that he commenced autorotation procedures.
I have no recollection of how long it took to forcibly land but when we did the terrain of the rocky riverbed made the heli tip on its side. The noise and violence of the rotor blades smashing themselves to bits will stay with me forever and I thought that at any moment one them was going to hit me and it would be goodnight.
After the noise stopped. I opened my eyes realising I was still in one piece, looked over my shoulder to see flames. Imagining every Hollywood blockbuster, I expected the machine to explode in a fireball, for the third time I thought I was going to die. I have another blank as to how I managed to get out from the back of the wreckage around to the smashed bubble Perspex at the front where Ricky, Irene and the pilot were still strapped in and unhurt. I yelled that it was on fire and about to explode, I assisted Irene to get out, the pilot was lethargic and dazed as he slowly reached for his log book and the sheepskin from his seat on the way out. Also in hindsight I realised that he was relieved, he had successfully crash landed a disabled helicopter and no one was dead or injured.
Once we were all out,for a few minutes we stood in shock as the fire took hold and flames of the craziest colour burned along with almost fireworks type sounds erupted as the composites melted. I could see the sling load of kayaks on the other side of the river where it had landed after being jettisoned. In the back of my kayak in a dry box was my satellite phone. I would have to swim across a swift glacial grade 2 rapid to get assistance. My life jacket and helmet was in the heli burning so I wouldn't have that kit for the swim. I reached the other side got the dry box out and without thinking swam back to the others. Once I opened the dry box, it was further shock to see the phone smashed.
Now I would need to swim back across the river and run downstream for 2km to where the rafters were waiting for the heli to come back and they had Comms. This I did, spoke to the owner of the rafting company who dispatched another helicopter from Franz Joesf to rescue my group and continue with the rafting trip.
Needless to say that the rest of the day was spent organising the retrieval of people and debris. Fortunately the pilot was mates of legendary Haast pilot Morgan Saxton who flew up to help.
It turned out the reason for the crash was pilot error. The strop he used was too short and lightweight rope not suitable for the light bulky load of kayaks, should of been long heavy chain. As we flew past the quarry a renown gusty spot, the narrowing of the valley caused a gust to blow the sling into the tail rotor effectively disabling it.
The crash didn't put me of flying in helicopters, in fact I took Irene heli kayaking the next day on the Taipo river. It did affect how I viewed the risk involved with using them and did influence my retirement from professional river guiding almost a year later.
Irene emails me occasionally, I feel guilty that I haven't replied for years, I hope by writing this down it will motivate me to reconnect with her. Ricky, I'm friends with him on Facebook, I follow is international wanderings, he's based in Cananda now, if you're reading this buddy, best wishes...