The crew of the Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter involved in the successful search for Jessica O’Connor and Dion Reynolds in the Kahurangi National Park say they never gave up hope of finding the pair alive.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) supported the NZ Police and LandSAR for a week in the search for the two missing trampers before their rescue on Wednesday afternoon.
Search helicopters in the area directed the NH90, that had travelled from RNZAF Base Ohakea to support the operation, to a small clearing — about the size of a small car — in dense bush after smoke was spotted.
Flight Lieutenant Loic Ifrah said despite knowing the area where to look, he could barely see the pair.
“It was a pretty incredible spot by the crew, and of course a pretty big effort by the LandSAR and NZ Police, it was pretty impressive to watch it all unfold.”
An Air Force SAR Medic on board was winched down using a 150ft winch to assess the two trampers, and were briefed on winch extraction.
“They had a group cuddle, our medic was pretty happy to see them and they were happy to see us.”
The pair were given chocolate bars by the crew during the flight.
FLTLT Ifrah said there were lots of emotions once the pair were on board the NH90 and flown to waiting ambulances.
“We hadn’t given up obviously otherwise we wouldn’t have poured our efforts in to it, but as time went by and bad weather in the area, thoughts do turn to the worst,” he said.
“That adds to the sense of relief and euphoria.”
Despite the successful recovery of the two trampers, the NH90 crew were back in the area today to winch out 13 searchers and two dogs who remained in the area overnight.
Police requested support from the NZDF as the RNZAF NH90 helicopter is well suited to flying in challenging terrain and has night vision goggle and winching capabilities.
The NH90 can also be used to transport large ground search teams within the wilderness area, particularly to less accessible areas.