David Beck enjoys installing power poles and pouring concrete – from the air. “It’s a challenge and real precision work but it’s also very satisfying,” says David who is a pilot with Beck Helicopters of Eltham. He’s been flying with the company his father Alan founded for 17 years now and while not all jobs are as mentally taxing as putting in power poles or pouring concrete for lifts on the Turoa ski field even the ‘routine’ ones provide more excitement than a desk job.
The day I caught up with David he was taking a Bell Iroquois out of the hanger and gathering the equipment needed to winch a cow from where she had fallen down a cliff on the coast.
“It’s not the first time we’ve rescued a cow. In fact one time there were eight which had gone through a fence and over a bank.” With the chopper, equipment and crew ready to go,
David waited for the call from the farmer to say the vet was on hand and the cow sedated
ready for the lift. “Cows are pretty valuable now so it’s worth getting in the chopper to pull them out if there’s a chance of them surviving.” Turns out this one did survive and was soon back to her normal high milk production.
David has been around helicopters all his life and never really thought of doing anything else other than flying. His dad Alan founded Beck Helicopter 40 years ago, making it the first Taranaki-based helicopter operation and the longest surviving helicopter business in New Zealand.
Formed in 1972 to meet an increasing need for helicopter services in the province, the business began with a single Bell 47 helicopter, a small hangar and small staff base. Now it operates three Bell Iroquois and one Bell Jet Ranger helicopter across New Zealand, and carries out maintenance for clients on four continents. The company employs up to 15 staff including contractors and part-time employees. Further expansion is on the cards, with the future looking rosy.
Both Alan and David enjoy flying the Iroquois which David says are far from outdated. “Almost every major part on our Iroquois is replaced on a regular basis as parts are still readily available so the machines are far newer than their date of manufacture might suggest,” says David.
Beck Helicopters is the only company licensed for overhauling Iroquois engines and airframes in New Zealand. In 2000 the company diversified into maintenance and now helicopter parts from New Zealand and off-shore regularly arrive at the Eltham workshop for repair and maintenance.
Over the years the type of flying work the company carries out has changed. “We no longer do as much weed spraying as we used to because farmers have got much of the weed problem under control. We still do fertiliser spreading and farmers have realized that it cost very little more to get us to cover their whole farm, than to just do the bits too steep for fixed wings.”
Frost protection for vineyards in the Hawkes Bay is another significant part of the work and flying at night brings its own challenges.
“It’s not too bad as generally there’s a moon because frosts occur on clear nights but once you start flying you can’t stop until the sun comes up so it can make for a very long night,” says David.
The company has a long list of firsts, including being the first helicopter operator in New Zealand to utilise a Jet Ranger on agricultural operations, and the first in the Southern Hemisphere to operate Restricted Category Iroquois for commercial operations.
Through the company’s 22 year involvement with Search and Rescue, Alan says they also had the opportunity to give back to the Taranaki community, having participated in more than 500 rescues.
“It has really put Beck Helicopters on the map,” says Alan who received the Queens Service Medal for services to Search and Rescue in 1989, but he says the honour goes to the volunteers who put their lives at risk. “We only flew the helicopters.”
Originally hailing from Rotorua, the fertiliser spreading company Alan had worked for since school, sent him to Taranaki. In Eltham he met Margaret and they married 1969. They settled and raised three children. Alan says, “The rest as they say is history”.
At 65, he admits to thinking of retiring, having son David to take over the reins, but apart from a bout of “having had enough of flying 20 years ago”, he says it still gives him a thrill. It has taken him across the world to far-off places such as Nome in Alaska, and involved him in projects such as the Queenstown bungee, the removal of the tree on One Tree Hill in Auckland, and pouring concrete for the new chairlift at the Turoa ski field