50 years in the sky – Peter Turnbull retires from Northland Rescue Helicopter

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Peter Turnbull. Photo credit: Courtesy of Michael Cunningham Northern Advocate

Heralded as one of New Zealand’s most experienced rescue chopper pilots, Peter Turnbull is due to retire from the Northland Rescue Helicopter after 24 years with the service and 50 years as a pilot

Having qualified as a pilot from the Southland Aero Club at the age of 19, Turnbull’s first job was flying skiers and tourists to the ski slopes near Mt Cook.

Turnbull joined the Northland Rescue Helicopter in 1995 (then known as the Northland Emergency Services Trust), and during his time there he was instrumental in testing and preparing long-range Sikorsky S-76 helicopters (with a flight range of three hours) for operational duties in Northland, including sea rescues.

Turnbull notes that, at that time, there was a demand to provide emergency responses in Northland that could deal with the ‘tricky terrain’ and ‘vast distances from remote areas to hospitals and specialist medical support’. “The Sikorskys are high performance machines, with the most advanced engines and avionics technology in the industry, and they were the fastest and longest-range rescue helicopters in New Zealand,” said Turnbull. “Back then it was a big step to take, but it needed to be done.”

Turnbull also helped the Northland Rescue Helicopter team lead in the establishment of Instrument Flight Rules’ (IFR) routes throughout Northland – a lasting legacy, which to this day allows pilots to navigate in poor weather.

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Peter Turnbull ready to take flight. Photo credit: Michael Cunningham Northern Advocate

Since beginning his flying career, Turnbull has flown the equivalent of at least 110 times around the Earth and clocked up 22,000 flying hours. And he has also saved countless lives: “I got a card the other day,” he said, “and it summed it up for me – it said: ‘Thank you … for saving my life’.”

In 2018 Turnbull was recognised at the Annual Aviation Awards for both his work in rescue missions and in developing aviation services in New Zealand. “Pete is an aviation pioneer,” said Trust Chairman Paul Ahlers. “The work he did with former Trust Chairman John Bain and Chief Pilot Reg Ellwood to get the Sikorskys operational was a huge achievement and these aircraft showcased the limits a rescue chopper service could successfully work under. He’s also helped grow the region with an innovative, passionate, and staunch commitment to investing in Northland on many different levels – from rescue missions and training local pilots through to growing the local aviation industry.”

Though it will be a shame for the Northland Rescue Helicopter to say goodbye to Turnbull, he’s definitely earned his time to relax and retire. And still, Turnbull notes that, though he will miss the job and his team, he admits that he doesn’t plan to stop flying, and has a soft spot for the fixed-wing plane at his local aero club: “I remember when I was three or four telling my dad about how I used to dream of flying and that desire to fly has never left me.”