From Lincoln High to RNZAF chopper pilot

Dangerously high altitudes are all part of the adventure of flying for former Lincoln High School student and Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot Hayley Vincent. John Cosgrove spoke to her about what it's like to fly NH90 choppers for a living.

Flying officer Vincent rates her experience of piloting an NH90 medium helicopter in the southern mountain ranges as one of the many highlights of her career to date.

"I only qualified on the NH90 in November," said the Ohakea-based pilot.

"On the conversion course, I had done a bit of mountain flying in the mountains around Ohakea, but that was in the Ruahine and Tararua ranges, which aren’t quite as impressive or as high as what we have here in the South Island."

Vincent was taking part in Exercise Blackbird, the RNZAF's annual mountain flying course for NH90 pilots conducted by Number 3 Squadron.

Based at the Dip Flat Camp in the Wairau Valley, south of Blenheim, the course trains RNZAF helicopter pilots and crews to fly support missions at high altitudes and over challenging terrain during search and rescue operations.

The crews were training around the Raglan, St Arnaud and inland Kaikoura mountain ranges.

"On these training missions, we are very aware of the dangers of flying here," Vincent said.

"The sudden high wind shifts, the steep drops and scale shock can happen when flying next to mountains."

Hayley Vincent is a newly-qualified NH90 pilot. Photo: John Cosgrove
Hayley Vincent is a newly-qualified NH90 pilot. Photo: John Cosgrove
She said the sheer size of the mountains can make pilots think they are flying a lot slower than they actually are.

"You can tend to fly a bit faster than you think you are going because everything seems so far away and massive, so you accelerate a bit quicker than you ideally want to.

"We are aware of it and constantly reviewing all the emergency procedures we don’t want happening while we are flying up there.

"We are constantly looking at what we need to do or where can we go in the event of an emergency."

The main roles of RNZAF NH90 pilots in the mountains is to insert or retrieve search and rescue teams, help find injured or lost trampers and mountaineers, and work with DOC.

"It’s often when the weather or the terrain is challenging, then we are called in to have a crack," she said.      

A NH90 helicopter over Wairau Valley, south of Blenheim, during exercise Blackbird. Photo: John...
A NH90 helicopter over Wairau Valley, south of Blenheim, during exercise Blackbird. Photo: John Cosgrove
But the sheer beauty of the South Island mountains makes the experience a rare but welcome opportunity for the pilots.

"The coolest thing when flying up here would be just being able to pick a spot that is stunning that would take you days to walk into if you didn’t have a helicopter.

"(We) approach it and then park up next to a beautiful blue lake or a clear tarn, it feels like you are at the top of the world," she said.

The NH90 is an impressive aircraft to fly and a big step up from her training on the much smaller AW109 helicopters, Vincent says.

"Except for the obvious size and power differences, they are very similar so its easy to train and move from one to the other."

Vincent has been serving in the RNZAF for five years and says it’s an amazing job.


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