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