Helicopter pilot David Beck knew a wire was strung across a gully of
an eastern Taranaki farm where he was flying a couple of months
The 42-year-old, who has been a pilot for 20 years, was about to
apply fertiliser on Ian Jury’s dairy farm at Tuna, near Midhirst, in
eastern Taranaki and forgot about the wire.
“It was a momentary lapse,” said the veteran of 6000 hours of flying in
a Bell Iroquois, aka Huey, helicopter.
The wire was strung across a gully on the neighbouring farm of Brian,
Aidan and Kerin Schumacher.
“I flew over some trees and went to drop into the gully – and
remembered the wire. I had to pull up and out.
“If I hadn’t known it was there and hadn’t pulled up, I would have
flown straight through it.”
Beck said it took a long time to pull up because under the helicopter
was a bucket of 11⁄2 tonnes of fertiliser.”I was ready to drop the bucket
if it was going to hit the wire.” He confessed to feeling “a little bit
His father, Alan Beck – himself a flying legend and owner of Beck Helicopters Ltd- said avoiding the wire had required
considerable skill because the pilot had to pull out of a steep turn from a low level.
“He was right at the limit of what the blades could lift in terms of the weight because of the g-force being generated by
his steep turn.
“It’s unusual to do such a steep turn from a low level – let alone with a load. And he had the forethought to be ready to
let the bucket go.
“At least the wire was marked,” he said.
“We both knew the wire was there – but we forgot.”
PROBLEM SOLVED: Farmers Brian Schumacher, left, and Ian Jury, right, talk to helicopter pilot Alan Beck and
Taranaki Federated Farmers president Bronwyn Muir about removing wires from farms.
Taranaki helicopter hero Alan Beck is praising farmers who are taking down wires on their farms.
“If it saves just one life, it’s worth it,” he said.
Beck chairs the New Zealand Agricultural Aviation Association (NZAAA) whose Down to the Wire campaign is
alerting farmers to the risk wires pose to agricultural pilots.
The campaign is close to home for Beck, whose pilot son David just missed flying into a wire on a Taranaki farm in
April this year.
The wire spanned a gully on a 100ha beef farm owned by the Schumacher brothers at Tuna, near Midhirst.
Brian Schumacher said he put it up only six months ago as a feeder wire to power electric fences at the back of the
farm. “We control the bulls with electric fences,” he said.
After being alerted to David Beck’s near-miss, Schumacher has decided to remove the offending wire. Neighbour Ian
Jury, for whom Beck Helicopters was applying fertiliser that day, is going to help.
The wire crosses a corner of Jury’s dairy farm, which is surrounded
by the L-shaped Schumacher property.
“It’s no problem [to remove it],” Schumacher said. “It’s just a matter of
dropping it down and running it along the fence.”
Schumacher is not the only Taranaki farmer who has decided to get
rid of wires on his farm.
Rob Law is also about to take down wires on his hillcountry farm at
Kohuratahi. “I’ve probably got two that could trip a helicopter. If you
have a helicopter working on your property, you’re always wary of
wires. They’re a death trap. I don’t really want to kill a helicopter
He said he had no problem with the new health and safety legislation
which made farmers responsible if there was a wire- strike on their
Alan Beck, who said there had been 23 wire-strike fatalities in New
Zealand in the last 40 years, including one in Taranaki, appreciates
the farmers’ efforts. A wire-strike victim himself, he broke his back
when the helicopter he was flying struck wires in 1992.
Federated Farmers is assisting the NZAAA campaign because
Taranaki president Bronwyn Muir said hillcountry farmers had little
awareness of the penalties – a $600,000 fine or a prison term – they
faced if an agricultural pilot was injured while working for them.
Muir said a farmer wanting aerial work carried out on his property
needed to talk to neighbours so any hazards could be identified
before the pilot started the job.
“We’re communicating to farmers that safety is a priority for aircraft
“There are risks to pilots if we don’t get it right,” she said. “The simple
solution is to eliminate the wire.
“Farmers who can’t get power to the back of their farms have options other than wires. They can use solar power.
There are solutions other than just drawing off the main power unit at the front of the farm. And they could save
Taranaki helicopter hero Alan Beck is on a mission to convince
urban New Zealand of the value of agricultural aviation to the
Agricultural pilots have been boosting New Zealand agriculture
since he was a babe in arms, he says.
Kiwi pilots returning from World War II used their flying skills to
spread fertiliser on New Zealand hill country farms, turning tough
farming country into productive farmland and establishing New
Zealand as a world leader in aerial topdressing.
Fast forward to the late 1960s when Beck, then an agricultural
contractor, gained his pilot’s licence and turned his attention to
the next agricultural revolution in aviation – helicopters.
Now he’s taking the controls of the New Zealand Agricultural
Aviation Association (NZAAA) as Beck Helicopters – the
country’s oldest agricultural aviation company still in the hands of
the original owners – celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Beck, who has a Queen’s Service Medal for his services to
search and rescue, is concerned that New Zealand’s city
residents have a poor understanding of the role of agriculture in
the economy and of the contribution made by agricultural pilots.
But he does concede the agricultural aviation industry has not
always explained its activities to the public. “We have to improve our image and we have to get people to realise that agricultural
production represents two-thirds of New Zealand’s wealth.”
As part of that push to better understanding, the New Zealand Aviation Industry Association (NZAIA) – of which the NZAAA is a
subsidiary – developed an integrated environmental safety and flight safety programme called Aircare three years ago.
Aircare is a rigorous code of practice for noise abatement and for the aerial application of agrichemicals, fertiliser and vertebrate toxic
agents like 1080.
Beck says not only is Aircare a clear illustration of the industry’s commitment to the environment, but it’s also a reinforcement of New
Zealand’s position as an international leader in agricultural aviation. About 70 of New Zealand’s 90 or so agricultural aviation operators
are accredited to Aircare.
Helicopter Association International, with more than 2500 member organisations in 70 countries, is so impressed by Aircare that it
wants to be able to use it.
“Our cutting-edge policy is far ahead of anything that’s available in the US,” Beck said. “New Zealand is well ahead in terms of
compliance and codes of practice.”
He predicts regional councils will increasingly expect agricultural aviators to be accredited to Aircare because it ensures waterways are
protected from contamination by fertilisers and sprays.
Backing calls by Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment Jan Wright for the Department of Conservation to increase the use of
1080 for possum control, Beck says laying the poison by helicopter has improved immensely since the somewhat indiscriminate
methods of 30 years ago.
“It’ll always be an emotional topic and there’s a lot of misinformation about it. 1080 has done an amazing job on the mountain [Mt
Taranaki]. Tourists can’t believe the number of birds up there when I fly them over it. You can see pigeons and tui. The rebound in
birdlife is phenomenal.”
Banding of kaka, tui and morepork before a 1080 drop by Beck Helicopters near Tuatapere in Southland showed none had died.
He’s full of praise for the efforts Taranaki farmers have made to clean up the province’s rivers. Having had a bird’s eye view of them
from a helicopter for 40 years, he believes they’re in the best state in the country.
“If people could see them from my point of view, they’d say the same. There’s been a huge change in the rivers from where I see them.
On mountain flights, I always fly over them to show passengers how clean they are.”
He points out the industry’s environmental awareness is not limited to the establishment of Aircare. Beck says the use of GPS and the
on-farm nutrient management tool, Overseer, has also brought huge improvement to agricultural aviation.
As well as documenting standards for safe environmental practice, Aircare also deals with pilot safety. He says agricultural pilots must
be constantly alert to hazards in their daily operations – short airstrips, improvised landing areas, obstacles, wires and changing weather
While the sector had “a brutally high” fatality rate, a pilot safety initiative had led to four years without a fatality, the longest in its history.
As NZAAA chairman for the next two years, Beck wants to see improvements in both the profitability and the profile of agricultural
“Instead of being seen as dung dusters, we want to be recognised as professional aerial applicators. We’re not pouring dust around the
hills. It’s a specialised business that requires some of the most demanding flying imaginable.”
This weekend Beck Helicopters celebrated 40 years since Alan Beck started the family-owned operation outside Eltham. It was the first Taranaki-based helicopter operator, and is the longest-surviving helicopter business in New Zealand.
Formed in 1972 to meet an increasing need for helicopter services in the province, Alan says the business has grown from a single Bell 47 helicopter, a small hangar and small staff base to one which now operates three Bell Iroquois and one Bell Jet Ranger helicopter across New Zealand and carries out maintenance on four continents.
The company employs up to 15 staff, including numerous contractors and part-time employees.
Further expansion, Alan says, is on the cards, with the future looking rosy.
“We are here for the long-haul.” He adds that it is not an easy feat in a very tight industry. “It is hard to find operators in New Zealand
that have been around more than 20 years.”
Mainly an agricultural operator, Beck Helicopters diversified into maintenance in the early 2000s, which has proved a wise decision.
“Maintenance has gone ballistic.
“We could easily now provide jobs for 20 more engineers. We are the only company licensed for overhauling Iroquois engines and
airframes in New Zealand,” says Alan.
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 involvement with search and rescue for 22 years, 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. The company received the Queen’s Service medal for services to search
and rescue in 1989, but Alan says the honour goes to the volunteers who put their lives at risk. “We only flew the helicopters.”
Originally hailing from Rotorua, a fertiliser spreader company he had worked for since he was in school sent him to Taranaki. He met
Margaret in Eltham. They married in 1969, settled here and raised three children. “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 to far-off places such as Nome in Alaska and involved him in projects such
at the Queenstown Bungy, the removal of the tree off One Tree Hill in Auckland and pouring concrete for the new chairlift at the Turoa
At least four of Taranaki’s agricultural pilots share a nightmare about wires.
During a discussion with Fairfax Media about a
New Zealand Agricultural Aviation Association
(NZAAA) campaign to stop farmers stringing
electric fence feeder wires across gullies on their
farms, the four pilots discovered they endure the
Super Air pilot Steve Johnson, of Stratford, said he
literally had nightmares about the hazard posed by
wires. “I’m stuck under a maze of wires and I can’t
fly out,” he said.
Aerowork’s Mark Tocher, of Stratford, Beck
Helicopters’ owner Alan Beck, of Eltham, and
Precision Helicopters’ owner Matt Newton, of
Urenui, who all belong to NZAAA, revealed their
nightmares were identical.
“We all know – some of us more pertinently than
others – wires are a killer,” said Beck, who chairs
the NZAAA. Although pilots encountered comments
like, “You’re only here once a year spraying anyway.
Surely you can remember where the wires are,”
farmers needed to be aware they would be liable
under the Health and Safety Employment (HSE) Act if a pilot struck a wire on their farm. In Australia a
farmer has been successfully prosecuted for causing the death of a pilot who hit a wire. Beck, who
broke his back when his helicopter struck wires in 1992, estimates there’ve been a couple of dozen
wire strikes in Taranaki in the past 40 years. In that time there have been about 25 fatalities
throughout the country, including one in Taranaki.
Nicholas Heyburn, who was Newton’s father-in-law, died after the helicopter he was flying hit power
lines at Huiroa, east of Stratford, in 1999.
Beck said pilots spraying weeds were most at risk of wire strike because they were flying low. “If you’re
spraying gorse in a gully, you start at the bottom. It’s a more deadly situation.”
Often there were no poles to alert pilots to the presence of a wire across a gully.
Running the wire along a fence instead might be an extra day’s work for a farmer and might require a
few more insulators and battens.
Electric fence wire was high- tensile, 16-gauge steel that didn’t break. “Instead, if struck by a
helicopter, it wraps around the control system and squeezes it so you have no control.”
Wire can also catch the end of the wing of a fixed-wing aircraft, cut into it and drag it until it stalls.
Johnson, who has been flying since 2002, said he had a fright when he almost hit a power line in
Hawkes Bay. “It was below me camouflaged by the bush. I didn’t know it was there. I’d already done 10
runs and I could have hit it during any of them.
“Wires are the biggest hazard we face. We’re flying lower and lower now, because of the demands of
On a farm near Te Kuiti the farmer alerted him to a wire across a gully at a height of 80 metres above
the ground. “The wire was level with two gullies and if he hadn’t told me, I would have flown into it.”
Newton said stringing wire across gullies saved farmers money and time. “Spend more time and money
on the job and pin the wire to the fence line. Don’t flag it, because the flags fall off and they’re hard to
The most powerful health and safety tool available to pilots was their brain. “Use your common sense
and always be on the lookout for trouble.”
Newton, who has struck wires twice, said he knew about both of them. “I was being too brave. At
Mokau I was flying under a power line and I clipped a jerry-rigged electric fence wire.
“The second time I’d done my last load and I’d chosen to leave, when I saw some weeds under a wire. I
crept underneath to apply the left- over chemical while I was in a hover. I thought I was well clear of
the wire, but it was drooping more than I realised.
“A lot of strikes happen when the pilot knows the wire is there, but his attention is diverted by the
radio, or by checking the spray nozzle.”
Farmers with wires on their farms should put their removal at the top of the list of the hundred jobs
they had to do, he said.
Tocher, a pilot for 10 years, has been flying topdressing planes for five years and said while he hadn’t
struck wires, there had been a couple of good scares.
“It’s the standard stuff – in the early morning you don’t see the wire until the sun catches the dew on it.
Before starting a job, I fly around to identify any hazard, but it’s unbelievably hard to spot a single wire.
You can do a recce and look hard, but if you don’t see a wire, well, you don’t see it.
“At the back of Ohura early one morning, the sun caught the dew and I saw a wire I didn’t know was
there – and I’d already done four or five runs. That was about two years ago and it was the best wake-
up call I’d ever had.”
Some farmers who’d replaced television aerials on ridge tops with Sky dishes forgot to remove the junk
from the ridge. “So if you’ve left old wires and stuff up there, clean them up,” he said.
Taranaki Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairman John McMurray, of Inglewood, said farmers
needed to be aware of their obligations under the HSE Act and ensure they identified any hazards on
their farm to air operators.
“As a farmer myself, I know why farmers string wires across gullies, but it’s a silly thing to do. You take
a shortcut to stretch the wire across a gully, but you’ve still got to walk the wire from one side of the
gully to the other. So you may as well just follow the fenceline.”
Civil Aviation Authority health and safety manager Ed Randell said electric fence feeder wires should
follow the contours of the land. Feeder wires might be nailed to trees or sheds which, unlike those
attached to poles, gave pilots no clue to their existence. The location of wires should be specifically
discussed with pilots and identified on a farm map.
“It is clearly not safe to run wires across gullies, then require pilots to carry out low-level operations
over that property.”
Randell said such wires were an obvious breach of the HSE Act and could kill pilots.
DRUM ROLL ALERTS PILOTS
Two empty 20-litre plastic drums strung on a wireacross a gully on a South Taranaki farm warn pilots ofthe wire.
The drums were attached to the wire a few years ago
by Meremere farmer George Saxton.
Son Phil Saxton and wife Maree now own the 283-
hectare dairy farm where they milk 400 cows and
and run beef cattle.
Phil Saxton said the wire was used as a feeder for the
electric fence on the flats where they run their young
stock. The wire crossed the gully because there were
no fences to attach it to.
“It’s a safety measure. We don’t want a helicopter
crash on our farm.”
Eltham helicopter pilot and New Zealand Agricultural
Aviation Association chairman Alan Beck recently
sprayed gorse in the gully below the flats.
“Phil is a responsible farmer and he agrees he has a
responsibility to alert pilots to the wire because his
farm is a workplace.
“Younger farmers are picking up the ball and running with it when it comes to health and safety on
their farms,” he said.
– Taranaki Daily News
Taranaki to achieve certification to a new agricultural
aviation environmental safety programme.
Launched last year, Aircare is an integrated environmental
safety and flight safety programme developed by the New
Zealand Aviation Industry Association (NZAIA).
Beck Helicopters gained accreditation this week to the Aircare environmental management system,
which covers the aerial application of agrichemicals, fertiliser and vertebrate toxic agents and noise
Company owner Alan Beck said Aircare demonstrated the industry’s commitment to environmental
safety and was the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year agricultural aviation career.
A member of the NZAIA council, Mr Beck said the Aircare programme had been developed in
consultation with regional councils.
Companies accredited to the programme will be independently audited. Auditors will inspect GPS
records and fertiliser weigh dockets.
“They can see where we flew, how heavy the load was, where we put it on and where we shut off,
such as when we’re flying over rivers.”
Mr Beck said Aircare would reduce the exposure of waterways to contamination by fertilisers and
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.
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