Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter | A day in the life of the aircrew

Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter pilot Stefan Hildebrand and aircrew Matt Wenman.
Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter pilot Stefan Hildebrand and aircrew Matt Wenman.

On flying days a pilot, aircrew and rescue swimmer arrive at the Busselton Margaret River Airport at 7am to prepare the Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter before it takes off for duty.

The crew fly out on a two hour journey between 9am and 10am heading anywhere from Bunbury to Redgate, they return to base and refuel before heading out again for the afternoon.

With three sets of eyes in the sky, the crew monitor the surf conditions around the South West and look for sharks close to shore or people who might be caught in a rip.

Aircrew Matt Wenman said when the rescue swimmer boards the chopper, he is kitted out in a wetsuit and flotation devices in case he needs to be winched into the surf to rescue someone caught in a rip.

“If we get a call from the water police we can go and assist in a limited capacity, we can come in low then kick the swimmer out with a rescue tube, then we land on the beach and pick him up.,” Mr Wenman said.

Part of their job forms part of the state government’s shark mitigation program, when they spot a shark they record the size, how far away from shore it is and the direction it is travelling.

The crew contact a communications team in Perth, which sends out the information to agencies, which send out an alert to the public.

“If we spot a shark which is near the public we will come down low and sound the siren,” he said. 

“There could be surfers and swimmers 300 metres up the beach, we will sit over the shark and sound the siren so people up and down the beach are aware.

“It might not be a threat but it is good for people in the water to look up and see us circling to let them know there is a shark.

“That is a decision people have to make, whether they want to get out of the water.

“We are there for a reason and the community love us down here, when you see something near the public and you sound a siren then move onto the next beach you get a lot of thumbs up and people waving at you.”

Mr Wenman has been in the aviation industry for 26 years working as aircrew, which he described as being like a mission control room in the sky.

“With three in the aircraft, it is like having a multi-skilled set, in the early days a pilot would make the decisions, now with three of us on board we all make that decision to do a job or not do a job.

“We have crew resource management which allows each person to speak their mind, which is good especially in an aviation environment.

"It is all well and good flying around when it is beautiful weather but when it turns a bit pear shaped when you are doing a search for missing people and the conditions are not that great it does get a bit tense in the aircraft.

“To be able to speak up is a good thing because all it takes is for one person to say they are not happy.”

Mr Wenman said only a couple of days ago it was really windy along the Capes and the crew were thankful they were in a helicopter rather than a plane.

“The fixed wings get hammered by the turbulence from the wind so they just rock and roll all the time, helicopters tend to cut the air,” he said.

“I would rather be in a helicopter, there are a lot of different external noises and vibrations, especially when you turn into wind but you get used to it.

“It is not as scary as people say, as long as you have a good pilot sitting up the front, life is good.”

In WA, the Westpac Lifesaver Rescue Helicopter Service has performed over 480 missions, responded to 23 search and rescues and patrolled more than 100,000 kilometres of coastline last summer .

The helicopter has been operating from Fremantle since 2008 and Busselton since 2013.

Manned by paid and volunteer personnel, the highly-trained WLRHS crew patrol the coast from September to April each year; monitoring for rip currents and risks from marine life, as well as incidents on beaches and people in distress.

Westpac state general manager  Ken Luehman said the chopper and its crew played a crucial role in providing coastal safety and emergency responses for the WA community.

“Westpac is proud to support the vital community service provided by the WLRHS, which has been operating in the state since 2008 - with no one ever having to pay to be rescued,” he said. 

“We can’t thank the crew enough for their unwavering commitment to helping those in the local community when they need it most.”

Surf Life Saving WA general manager Chris Peck said the role the service played in coastal safety in WA was vital.

“As the helicopter is able to cover large areas in a relatively short period of time, the crew’s patrols were particularly important given the vastness of our coastline and because many popular beaches in the South Wwest cannot be serviced by on-beach patrol services at all times,” he said. 

“We are extremely grateful for the support provided by Westpac and are excited to continue the partnership for a further five years.”.