Local folk: James Taylor

Local folk: James Taylor

At local Anzac Day parades, an impressive array of medals adorns the chest of Arkles Bay resident James Tayler.

Alongside his own six medals, he wears six earned by his great grandfather who served in the South African War and World War I. James’ young son Daniel generally wears another 12 medals to the parades. These belonged to James’ two grandfathers – both were Majors in the British Army during World War II. Although James, aged 54, has seen active service in the Navy, his greatest pleasure is flying rescue missions for the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust and his focus is on staying in the air as long as he is able. He spoke with Terry Moore.

My father is an Anglican priest in Southern Spain at a church in the mountains near Malaga. He was a primary school teacher before becoming a priest. His father and grandfather were both in the Army, so he definitely bucked the trend. I joined the military straight out of high school because there wasn’t much else to do. I had virtually no academic qualifications but was keen on engineering. I tried to join the merchant Navy as an engineer but didn’t get in because at 16 years old I was too small. In a couple of months, although I was underweight, I was just tall enough for the Royal Navy to accept me. I spent eight years as non-commissioned engineer working on nuclear submarines during the Cold War. While I was doing that I got the qualifications I needed to transfer to Naval officer training as a pilot. I was flying gliders as a hobby and the first time I went up in the air was an ‘epiphany moment’: I knew that flying was what I was there to do. I saw the very end of the Falklands War and then active service in Bosnia and both Gulf Wars. I also did peacekeeping work with the United Nations in Sierra Leone. My eldest son, Peter is in the British Army.

Most of my active flying has been in support roles, transporting stores and troops on and off ships and into areas of conflict. Most of it is fairly routine and you’re well protected because the military don’t want to lose expensive people and assets – it’s not like the fighting you see in the movies. The flying conditions cause the biggest risk – things like sandstorms and poor visibility. The helicopters are very well protected with fighter jets covering you to make sure you get in and out safely. You don’t go in until they’re pretty sure it’s safe. It was interesting and exciting work – I love the kind of job where you never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. I couldn’t handle a desk job. I came to NZ because my sister has lived here more than 20 years. I’d got to the point in my career where I was running out of flying jobs and looking at being posted into administrative tasks: the Navy likes to promote people so that they progress over time into doing desk work as well as the fun jobs. I could see the writing was on the wall, so approached the NZ Navy to see if they wanted a flight instructor which they luckily did. After eight years with the NZ Navy as a helicopter pilot I ended up as commanding officer of No 6 squadron, the Naval helicopter squadron – at which time I could see the desk jobs looming once again. I had spent a while on a search and rescue squad in the British Navy, which gave me my first taste of rescue work. I enjoyed it because while 99 percent of military flying is training and exercising, the rescue flying is doing something for real.

So I joined NEST, and then 18 months ago became a full time pilot with the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (most people know us as Westpac Rescue Helicopter). It was a way to stay flying and I can’t believe I get paid to do something that I love so much. My wife would say it’s an obsession. Even after all this time in aviation, every time I hear a plane overhead I look up to see what it is.

There are only two helicopters in our rescue service and they’re available 24/7 so it’s very busy. Every time you go flying you are making a difference. I enjoy a challenge, such as when the weather is bad or someone is in a difficult position that only a helicopter can get them out of. One that I remember was when someone had fallen by a waterfall near Waihi and we had to use an 80m winch to get to them. You are focusing hard, hovering next to a rock face in windy conditions and if you thought about it, you probably wouldn’t do it. It’s a real team job because the pilot flies the helicopter, the paramedic is on the winch wire and the crewman leans out the door and directs the pilot. It’s only afterwards that you think about how close a call it was. You must have complete trust in your team. As an engineer I appreciate that there are an awful lot of moving parts that have to all be going in the right direction and working well for a helicopter to fly! The military background helps too because you have to fly fairly close to the limit of what the machines can do. You have to be mentally resilient because you see some distressing things at times and the ones that still affect me are any rescues involving children. You have to be careful, at times like that, that you don’t push on too hard when the conditions are difficult because you can’t risk the helicopter or your crew – so if someone needs you, particularly a child, you have to still make sensible decisions. I’ve never had a crash, but there have been a couple of close calls such as having to land in a hurry when systems have failed. Many years ago in the UK I flew into electric power lines that weren’t marked on a chart. The impact broke the wires and put out power to a nearby village. We ended up landing close to where we hit the wires with only minor damage to the helicopter.

I’ve heard the view expressed that some people should pay to be rescued, if they’ve got themselves into dangerous situations. I don’t believe that’s a good idea, as it may discourage people from calling for help. However the current system of having all the rescue helicopters in NZ administrated by separate charitable trusts is very inefficient because we’re competing for funds. Some sort of central funding would be more efficient but the downside is that you’d lose that community sense of ownership. Currently there are 11 separate rescue trusts all with their own administrations and training and different types of helicopter. Ours is quite well funded with a range of corporate sponsors along with Westpac and this means we can fly 24/7 whereas others can’t respond as quickly or in night-time or difficult conditions. They’re all incredibly professional but just don’t have the resources. It costs around $6000 per mission and last year we flew 1100 missions. Maintenance is the biggest cost, there’s wages and insurance and we chew through fuel at 240 litres per hour.

Anzac Day is hugely popular with current servicemen and women because it’s a chance to talk to the veterans – there’s a lot to share because the military hasn’t changed that much, although a lot of effort is put into equality of gender, race and culture. I’m a member of the Hibiscus Coast Community RSA – most military people, even after they’ve left the service, still have strong ties with the military and belonging to the RSA is a way to keep those going.

I’ve just come back from a week in Indonesia running an aviation safety course for pilots who work for a tobacco company, flying its executives around. There’s a lot of money in cigarettes. One machine in a factory produces a million cigarettes a minute and that’s just one of many machines. I talked with the Indonesian pilots about why people make mistakes and crew resource management – the non-technical skills you need to stay safe. Mistakes happen because we’re human beings and not evolved to work in a complex environment. Our basic programming is still all about flight or fight. So when you read of a pilot making a stupid mistake it could be that something has triggered that fight/flight response. Training is all about learning to stay cool and calm – and also about communication. Most of the time I can keep a cool head because, after almost 30 years of flying, you get quite good at focusing and analysing what’s going on in an emergency.

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