"Chopper Nut" (Nick Bates)
- March 2019
As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a pilot. My earliest memories are of being at Christchurch airport around the mid 80s, so it was the scream of the RR Darts on the Friendships and HS748s as well as the roar of JT8Ds on the mighty 'classic' 737s. The smell of Avtur to this day, triggers something in my psyche. Other memories from around that time include the Newmans Dash 7s and the Carvair that used to toddle around the country. A family friend used to fly the Twin Otters for Mount Cook (remember that?) out of Queenstown and so we used to spend a fair amount of time down there. Mid 80s in Queenstown was quite different to what it is now, but the things that I remember is a hell of a lot of helicopters and no security at all. According to my parents, I could identify a Hughes 500 before anything else...Christchurch 1986... a look into the future (Dave Bates Photo)Taking Flight
I first took to the air around this time in a Bell 206 with Alfie Speight out of Queenstown and so helicopters were on my mind from a very young age. Over the next few years I flew sporadically in helicopters.
I did the usual things growing up, building model aeroplanes, playing 'war' in the garden and tinkering with flight simulators (FS4 in the early 90s). My first hands-on flight was in ZK-CUA out of Forrest Field in 1994 or 1995. Being in the air actually flying the aircraft was a revelation. That was definitely a defining moment in my young life and probably set up what my future was going to be like.
I joined the Young Eagles in 1996 which afforded me a lot more air time in Cherokee 140s, 160s and my first flight in the Super Cub which was a wonderful experience. Through all of this though, helicopters were still on my mind even though I wasn't flying in them a lot.
I started my own flying in 2003 with the Wellington Aero Club. I wanted to fly, even though my eyes were still on rotary wing aircraft, fixed wing flying was 'affordable'. After battling with the Wellington weather for six months and only getting about five flying days, I gave up in disgust and moved my life to Blenheim. Flying with the Marlborough Aero Club was the breath of fresh air that I needed. Easy to deal with CFI, good weather and no traffic. Around this time I met someone who was running a single R22 as an instructor. I figured that it was a good a time as any to try my hand in a helicopter. Much as flying the Cherokee all of those years ago was a revelation, being hands on in an R22, and being a little bit natural (his words not mine) was the same x10... I soloed in ZK-INA two months later.Competent to fly solo in fixed and rotary wing aircraft 18-5-2008. (Yes, I do have a filthy mustache, I'd just left it from Movember the previous year) (Author's Collection)
Anybody in the know will tell you that helicopter flying is stupidly expensive. I'd exhausted my funds before I was able to do my PPL. On my instructors advice, I enrolled at Nelson Aviation College in Motueka for their next semester.Learning to Learn
The course at NAC wasn't too tough to start with. I had done all but two of my CPL exams so the ground school was a bit of a refresher for me. The thing that I learned though, was about going into an environment where not everybody was already an aviator. Most of the course had NEVER flown before and that blew my mind. I found that peoples eyes started to glaze over while I was talking about knowledge that I had taken for granted. Having said that, I made a few life-long friends on that course. Fellas who would drop everything if I needed help and vice versa. After three months in the classroom (with sporadic flights to keep current), the final exams were written (before the days of computer exams) and it was into the hangar.The NAC Helicopter Fleet (Author's Photo)
Motueka is a wonderful place to learn to fly. The weather is almost always good, Wellington was an hour and a half away, Christchurch was two hours, the West Coast was 45 mins... and there was an abundance of helicopters. Because of the 45 hours of rotary flying I had already achieved, I jumped ahead to refining the emergencies and ticking boxes for my PPL. I actually failed at the first attempt at my PPL. I was grossly under prepared and probably a little cocky. A week and a half later, I nailed it. Onto the CPL syllabus with more emergencies, low flying, sling loading (great, great fun) and some pretty epic flights to different parts of the country. I achieved my CPL on 14-2-2010 under the watchful eye of Dave Sowman.
Almost immediately afterwards, I went on the great South Island road trip to find a job. This is when the crushing realisation set in that 'Sh*t, now I've got to find a job..' My plan was to work somewhere in NZ but it soon became clear that 1000 hours+ was the benchmark for employment at that time. I didn't want to go ag flying and so the only thing I could do was go instructing. Back to school.How Does One Make Money in This Game?
The instructional course was HARD. I thought at that time that I was a pretty sh*t hot aviator but I soon found out that trying to teach what I knew was something else altogether. A lot of hard work, weekends at the whiteboard, no social life or dating and that was crammed in with the extra flying that we had to do. Learning to fly from the left in the R22 isn't particularly hard but there are a few interesting techniques to get your head around. Getting towards the date that the test was expected, it started to gel for me. On the 25-4-2010 (yes we crammed a lot into two and a half months), Dave Sowman and I took to the air once again and he put me through my paces. Thankfully, and with a bit of help from Dave, I achieved a good pass. When you achieve a C-Cat instructor rating, you then have to complete six months or 100 hours of direct supervision before you can work, more or less, unaided. I was fortunate to be given this opportunity through NAC although, I'd be doing it for free... Word from the wise kids, DON'T WORK FOR FREE. I was in a pickle though, if I didn't take that position, the guy behind me would've and my instructor rating would be next to useless.'Kermit The Frog Green' Instructor (Author's Collection)
The next seven months were interesting. It turned out that I wasn't a natural instructor. I was short tempered, arrogant and I didn't even have the skills to back it up. I had a lot to learn. However, I got my 100 hours and was kicked out on my arse. Now what? I did what every pilot does.... go drive tractors.
I did the apple picking season driving tractors in Motueka which was actually really good for me. I kept my ear to the ground about flying jobs, however there wasn't much going in NZ at that time, the GFC was still hurting people. Then a friend of mine got a gig in Australia... I booked a ticked that day.Fake it 'Till You Make it
I arrived in Australia and went to see Bill at Bankstown Helicopters. He seemed to like me and we seemed to get on. He then sent me up to Orange in NSW to meet with one of his senior pilots. Joel and I got on pretty well but I didn't think that there was a chance of a job. I continued my trip around Australia meeting various people. Little did I know, Bill had already decided that I was the man for his base in Orange. In fact, I didn't find out until my last day in Australia. Back to NZ, pack up everything in record time, say goodbye to everyone including my beloved, adopted dog Roxy, and move into rural NSW.
The Australians are kind of a strange people. They have their own way of doing things and they won't be told that there are better ways. I think that we're fortunate in NZ in that we have a lot of freedom as pilots and instructors. Not so over there. Everything has to be structured and planned. I was shocked to find out that I couldn't put a couple of students in the R44 and let them take turns at flying... that's just what we did in NZ.The CWHS Fleet (Author's Photo)
My skills as an instructor started to improve and by the time I had 1000 hours total flying, I had really found my groove. I had all of the tricks as to how to get students to understand, how to subtly trap them, box them into a corner without them knowing while maintaining safety. However, I was restless. Instructing isn't for everyone and people tend to get burned out. Even Bill didn't expect more than two years out of me, and I'd told him that I'd do that much.If You can't be Good, be Colourful!
I knew about the flying off the tuna boats but not how one gets there. After chatting with a couple of senior guys, I decided that this was going to be the next step in my career. I knew all of the horror stories but I'd talked to enough guys who had done it to decide that most of them were BS. I contacted Hansen Helicopters in Guam and literally three weeks later, I was on an aeroplane to Tarawa to meet the boat.First Tuna machine. Previous pilot's painting on the side (Author's collection)
Tuna flying was a real eye-opener. I'd never had so much freedom to operate the aircraft as I saw fit. There were really no rules other than 'don't crash' and 'don't break stuff'. It was my first encounter with Asiatic cultures and that was the toughest thing to start with. The gear of course was the fabulous Hughes 500 which I had been rated on in NZ but this was the first time actually using it. The learning curve was steep but not unmanageable and during that whole first tour of 13 months, I had no real problems or scares.
Tuna flying isn't for everyone. A lot of people can't handle being on the boat for that period without all of the comforts of home, some can't handle the Asians, some can't handle not flying new(ish) gear... the washout rate within the first tour is high. I found it enjoyable though. I had my guitar, Kindle and computer and I just did my thing. It was really quite nice not having the pressures of everyday life. The other pilots that I met out there are among my best friends, the nights in the port of Majuro are the stuff of legend. Tales of how circumstances conspired to kill and only superior skill saved the day were not uncommon. Some were terrible, some were funny, most were colourful and all, at that point in time, were brothers.Airport bar Majuro, normal night after working on the machines all day (Author's collection)
I completed four contracts between 2013 and 2018. By the time the boat docked for the last time in Pohnpei, I was thoroughly done with it. I had started to become lazy, short tempered and bored. It had stopped being fun. I'm thankful to this day for the experiences and the people that I met but I had taken all I could from that way of life. It was time to move on.Why is Everyone Waving at Us?
One of the best things about tuna flying is the networking aspect. Through people I connected with, I came onto the radar of the owner of Manolos Aviation in PNG. I knew a couple of guys who had worked there and they gave me the gen that I was able to strip away all of the nonsense posted on the internet. Very quickly I was sent to Kokopo in East New Britain for the BO105 type rating and then I was straight into it... Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire. First twin, first PNG job, new company and new task. The learning curve was, once again, very steep. I did seven MEDEVACS the first week on the job... All the while, learning the terrain, how to use the HF radio, how to understand people on the radio, learning how the weather works etc. One of the worst bits of advice I was given when I started is that 'You'll recognise the correct village because they'll be waving a red rag at you'... In PNG, everybody waves at you when you fly past.Picking up a snake bite victim at Menyamia (Author's photo)
I started flying in PNG in August 2018 and I have flown over most of the country in that time. There are some amazing spots from Tari with an elevation of 5000ft to the tropics of East New Britain and New Ireland. It is most definitely the most interesting place that I have flown and I can see why pilots keep coming back.Picking up a dead body in Bougainville (Author's photo)The Future
Hopefully at this stage of my career, doors will start opening. I'm hoping, pending world events, that the US will become home as of next year. The opportunities in EMS, law enforcement, utility, fires etc are huge. I have an American girl that I'm going to marry and I just love it there. That won't even be the last stop. One of the things that I love about the industry, there's so many places that you can go and things you can do. The adventure is just beginning...The Virtual Side
I've been simming since the early 80s. Dad brought home Microprose's F-15 Strike Eagle II for our Atari and him and I played that a lot. Later on, my best friend had FS4 on his computer and that just enthralled us. The first sim I had myself was FS98 and this was a huge part of me growing up learning about aeroplanes or rather learning how they operate. I skipped FS2000 because of the hardware requirements. I got FS2002 for Christmas that year and then FS2004 when it came out. I waited a long time to get FSX, again due to hardware. When I switched, I ran FSX for many years until I got fed up with the flight model a few years ago. I then switched to XP which has to be the best thing I could've done. I also run Aerofly a little and DCS in a very limited form as it annoys me sometimes. I have Reentry, Orbiter 2016 and Kerbal for my spaceflight fix.The RestMusic
: Derek and the Dominos, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Faces, The Band (Short answer, I could go on)Drink
: Good lager and draught beers, good scotch.Politics
: Uggghhhh... The only party I support in NZ is ACT.Other Hobbies
: Building model aeroplanes, spaceflight history, playing guitar, all forms of shooting, flight simulation (duh).