Mourners gather for funeral of pilot de Ridder

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Two men were killed in a helicopter crash as they were responding to a call to help evacuate residents trapped by a forest fire on the Karikari Peninsula, New Zealand, at around 21:38 hrs on 30 November. Pilot John de Ridder and William Macrae, a ranger with the Department of Conservation, were conducting a reconnaissance flight when the AS350 BA Squirrel went down in Matai Bay.

A director for charter company Salt Air, John ‘Prickles’ de Ridder, was described in a statement by chief executive Grant Harnish as a ‘core member’ of the close-knit team, adding: “He was an extremely experienced helicopter pilot well known throughout Northland and the New Zealand aviation community. He was particularly known for his constant quest to find a better or safer way of doing things. … It’s indicative of Prickles’ nature that his final act was a selfless attempt to rescue people whose lives were in danger under extraordinary circumstances.”

The helicopter crashed into the sea about one kilometre off the northern end of Karikari Moana beach, explained Harnish. He said: “The aircraft was helping to fight a fire and we understand at this point that the pilot had been requested by authorities to divert in order to extract people from the beach, away from approaching flames and out of harm’s way. He removed the monsoon bucket and set off on this new tasking.”

Conditions at the time of the accident were ‘extremely difficult’, said Harnish, and the helicopter was operating in darkness with considerable smoke and flames. He added that Salt Air only operates in such conditions if human life is at risk.

A funeral held for de Ridder at Bay of Islands Airport was attended by more than 1,000 mourners. His casket arrived onboard a Lama helicopter, accompanied by three other helicopters and two fixed-wing planes, and was carried into the Salt Air hangar with a guard of honour formed by Northland fire fighters.

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