14 February 2020
Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) NH90 pilot Flight Lieutenant Andrew Stewart has had a frenetic two months.
First he was involved in a challenging search and rescue mission, then provided air support for the Australian bushfires and last week flew elderly rest home residents to safety during the Southland floods.
Flight Lieutenant Stewart, 28, a member of No. 3 Squadron at Base Ohakea in Manawatu, said the work was exactly why he joined the RNZAF 12 years ago.
“It was to do these sorts of operations and help people in times of need.”
Flight Lieutenant Stewart grew up in Timaru and joined the RNZAF shortly after turning 17.
“Being a pilot is what I always wanted to do,” he said.
On December 30, about 1.30am, Flight Lieutenant Stewart and an NH90 crew flew to the Hutt River Gorge in Upper Hutt, where a man and five children were stranded.
A police search and rescue team had reached them, but the group was exhausted and wet, so was unable to walk out.
With low cloud, rain and strong wind in the narrow gorge the conditions could not have been worse, Flight Lieutenant Stewart said.
“But we train for these situations, and that training kicked in.”
A medic was lowered to the group and she was able to get them winched into the helicopter and flown to nearby Kaitoke Campground, where the group was staying.
Last month Flight Lieutenant Stewart was deployed to Australia to help in the bushfire efforts.
He flew rescue fire service workers around high-risk areas, looking for smoke and fires that had flared up. He also transported Australian fire and rescue service members and Australian Army soldiers around the area.
“The hardest thing for me to comprehend was the scale of the fires,” he said. They were massive, and they were happening across such large areas across a lot of the country, stretching the country’s resources thin.
“It was great to help our Australian friends on such a big operation.”
The biggest challenge as a pilot was the reduced visibility in the smoke, he said. Trapped by inversion, the smoke could be up to 200 kilometres from the fire itself, with visibility down to one to two kilometres.
“The unpredictability of the smoke was also a challenge, plus around the fires themselves there were extra hazards of other fire-bombing and spotting aircraft. I’ve never worked on anything on this scale.”
Shortly after returning from Australia, Flight Lieutenant Stewart was sent to Southland after the recent flooding.
“We evacuated 20 residents of a rest home in Wyndham and took them to Invercargill Hospital. The oldest we had on board was 102,” he said.
“We also delivered food and water to where it was needed and flew some reconnaissance with the Civil Defence Emergency Management team. The following day we flew the Minister of Civil Defence around the area.”
Seeing the scale of the flooding across farmland was distressing to see, he said.
“It was tough seeing how difficult it will be for the farmers in the months ahead, with land covered in water and baleage that had floated away. There were also bridges that had been taken out by the floods. It was quite a sight.”