Fifty-three times, Eltham man Alan Beck has dressed for the funeral of a pilot or crew member killed in a helicopter crash.
It would have been 54, but he skipped the 50th, a superstitious response, perhaps; a way to take some control of events over which he had none.
While the helicopter industry is cloaked in glamour, the job is defined by daily risk that cruelly punishes mistakes.
For some, that risk is less than for others. And for Mr Beck, chief pilot and CEO of Beck Helicopters, lessening that risk is one reason he is still here today.
It is also the reason he is the first person in New Zealand to be awarded the Gold Safety Recognition Certificate by the Aviation Industry Association. This certificate recognises he has not had a serious accident for at least 15 years. But it has been much longer than that.
Since starting the company as a 25-year-old in 1972, no serious accidents have occurred.
To put the achievement in perspective, a gruesome statistic is called for: of the eight other pilots Mr Beck trained with in Rotorua in the late 1960s, seven were dead within the first 10 years.
In a matter of weeks, the blue jean- and work boot-wearing Mr Beck will be 62 and he has already seen enough unnecessary death to last a lifetime.
Mr Beck’s progress since those early days has been no secret. Over the years, new limbs, bumps and protrusions have appeared on his headquarters just north of Eltham, quickly looking as though they had always been there. Despite the recession, which has forced many companies to retract, more expansion is planned and business is better than ever.
And make no mistake: business, not daredevil pilots and swashbuckling rescues, is what the helicopter industry is about.
Margins, records, risk management, internal audits, Civil Aviation Authority spot checks and safety, safety, safety is what gets you hired and is what pays the bills. Mr Beck knows all of this so intimately, it now feels instinctual rather than learnt.
“Basically,” he says time and again when explaining the complex processes involved in running a business in an industry obsessed with safety.
“Basically, this is a business.”
He employs more than a dozen staff, has three helicopters flying and more in the shed, a website, a logo worth thousands from a design company, insurers in London and contracts on both main islands of New Zealand.
“Basically, if you don’t keep records, you won’t survive.”
Floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with boxes and folders full of paperwork. Computer hard drives keep just as much safe.
“Basically, it’s as simple as that.”
But in the helicopter game, it isn’t as easy as that. Or it was, but never will be again. The CAA stepped in years ago and forced the industry to clean up. Too many deaths, too many crashes, a reputation for cowboy pilots forced its hand, so much so that Mr Beck’s son, David, also a helicopter pilot and operations manager at the company, probably won’t use a dark-coloured suit as much as his father has.
This is because the rules for aviation operators are strict and enforced in the same manner.
In November last year, high-profile and widely respected Taranaki pilot Brett Emeny was fined $8000 for breaching those rules. In the same case, his former employee Michael Jackson had to pay $7000.
All companies operating the country’s 757 helicopters are internally and externally audited. Every serious accident is investigated and charges are laid if necessary.
Flying helicopters today is about dotting i’s and crossing t’s and then going back and doing it again. Strict regulatory requirements keep out all but the committed or well funded.
“What’s the best way to make a small fortune in the helicopter industry?” Mr Beck says.
“Start with a big one.”
Or start 37 years ago. On a tour around the workshop, he points out various pieces of equipment and spare parts and for each he matter-of-factly states a price that belies their size and basic appearance.
“Thirty-five thousand US dollars for that … that one, eighteen thousand US.”
In a small room lined with shelves, small boxes of carefully labelled plastic bags contain “hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth”.
This is where the true cost of running a helicopter becomes clear. Maintaining the machines runs into the hundreds of thousands and quickly surpasses their purchase price.
Which is probably why he started with a Bell-47 helicopter, the one made famous by the Korean War and later the sitcom M*A*S*H.
They are small and childlike and seem ridiculous next to modern machines. He now operates UH-1 Iroquois — another helicopter made famous by war, this time Vietnam
When asked, Mr Beck says he sees the progression to these machines, which have enabled him to prosper in the niche market of heavy lifting, as natural, almost inevitable, but he arrived there through a series of deliberate decisions.
One of those was to get out of rescue work (despite being awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for services to Search and Rescue in 1989) and concentrate on heavy lifting.
This can involve everything from carrying tonnes of concrete to isolated mine sites, or tonnes of fertiliser to back-country farms, or transporting a Wind Wand to an Auckland art collector.
It’s the unglamorous and blue-collar side of flying — until you look at your bank balance. Hourly rates can be as much as $4000.
“It would be very hard to emulate our development under the rules in place today,” Mr Beck says sympathetically.
If you start with a small machine like he did, you might be able to do it, he says.
“But it is so competitive and there are so many in there — operators — they can’t make any money. They don’t last, they go broke.”
Even a quick glance in the phone book shows the helicopter game is only for the brave.
There are 10 operators listed in Taranaki alone. More are available when you consider these are machines that travel in straight lines.
That puts the East Coast just an hour away, the South Island only a little more.
In New Zealand, no place is that far if you have a helicopter and there are helicopters everywhere.
In fact, no country in the world has more helicopters per head of population, says Aviation Industry Association of New Zealand chief executive Irene King.
Kiwis took to the aircraft with vigour, hinting at a latent desire to correct the evolutionary oversight that left their namesake grounded.
As with any new venture, the first few years were fraught with thrills, danger and death.
“Certainly there is no question when helicopters came into the country [in the 1950s], they were used for pretty adventurous things and the industry pushed their machines to the limits,” Ms King says.
“But since then, people have come to understand a lot more about helicopters’ capabilities and what happens when you operate them outside their safety margins.
“So we have started to see the accident rate tracking down quite significantly.”
The CAA of New Zealand concurs and puts a lot of the responsibility for that on simple economics.
“If you haven’t got a good safety record, no one will hire you,” spokesman Bill Sommers says.
Like Mr Beck, the CAA is also aware an economy in recession can put pressure on operators to cut costs,
potentially delaying or stopping vital maintenance work.
Mr Sommers says as well as strict regulatory controls, the authority carries out surveillance work to ensure
this does not happen.
“No, no — that isn’t guys in cars watching from across the street,” he says, laughing.
What it does mean is men with calculators and pens, soft-soled shoes and softer hands going through the
books to make sure rotors have been replaced, engines serviced, hours correctly logged and forms filled in just
as they should be.
The CAA is a stickler for detail and certainly doesn’t agree “she will be right”.
Old-school operators, the type made famous by the novels of Barry Crump, would probably grumble and
moan about the paperwork and rally younger pilots with stories of times before the regulators got hold of the
chopper business — when men could be men and making money was as easy as falling off a log and no one
told them what to do.
Or, what to wear to funerals.