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With a topography that varies from snow-capped mountain peaks to rolling farmlands that cascade down to the surrounding ocean, New Zealand is home to some of the most diverse and magnificent landscapes on earth. That myriad terrain brings with it the challenge of accessibility. To help overcome this, the Kiwis looked to the helicopter.
Less than 16 years after Igor Sikorsky flew the first modern helicopter in 1939, the first helicopter in New Zealand took to the skies over Auckland. In the seven decades since, helicopters have become not just a convenience, but often a necessity to enable a way of life for many in the island country.
As its name implies, the Southland region is the southernmost of the 16 governmental regions in New Zealand. With its 100,000 residents dispersed over 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometers), it is the second-most sparsely populated region, and it contains some of the country’s most fertile farmlands. Helicopters have become an almost perfect fit for the variety of the farming needs in Southland. Spraying crops for fertilization, desiccation, weeding, fire control and seeding all fall into the wheelhouse of the small, nimble aircraft and seasoned pilots. Since 2018, a group of highly experienced aviators has united their talents to provide these exact services for the farmers of southern New Zealand.
Becoming Southland Helicopters
Chief pilot Hayden Cherry grew up in the coastal town of Oamaru, best known for its penguin population. Unlike his flightless neighbors, Cherry was destined for the skies. “I’ve just always wanted to fly,” he told Vertical. “When I was in school, riding on the bus, I’d see a local helicopter pilot spraying the paddocks. I thought, that’s pretty cool — I want to do that!”
He earned his commercial helicopter rating in 2002, having initially trained in a Robinson R22. He had also recorded some time in an MD 500. After working at a local agricultural operator, he headed to Papua New Guinea to provide support for oil drilling rigs. He returned to New Zealand after a year, and a new opportunity quickly presented itself. “I’d been home for a week when an operator who had just bought a base in Invercargill rang me up,” he said. “They were running a Bell JetRanger and offered me the position to run the base.” He accepted the job and made the move south.
Within a few years, that company was purchased by Heliventures. At the time, there were two bases under the previous company: one in Balclutha, and Cherry’s in Invercargill. In 2018, John Collins, a long-time helicopter operator and joint owner of Heliventures, purchased the Invercargill base to set out on his own. Collins and Cherry joined forces, and Southland Helicopters was almost up and running. But there was still one puzzle piece missing.
The last member of the trio that formed Southland is Willy Mills, who today serves as its training manager. “Aviation is in my family,” Mills told Vertical. “My older brother is a [Boeing] 777 captain for Emirates and my parents owned a helicopter in Southland before I was even born. I never really wanted to do anything else — I just wanted to be a helicopter pilot.” Mills earned his private pilot license as a teenager, followed soon after by his commercial rating. During his training, he worked as a loader for a tourism and agricultural helicopter company on the west coast as part of the ground crew, but they never had an opening for a pilot. His first paid flying job was as a whale-watching pilot in Kaikoura where he flew Robinsons and a JetRanger. “I learned a lot there,” he said. “We were flying several miles off the coast, 200-foot separation between helicopters and airplanes, sometimes just on the opposite side of the orbit. It required a great deal of attention and awareness of your surroundings.”
Mills had no way of knowing at the time, but his desire to move back to his hometown area near Invercargill would be serendipitous. After a short break from flying, he was drawn back in after an interview with Jeff McMillan of HeliSouth (Cherry’s business partner). “He asked if I wanted a loader driving job and to work towards my ag rating,” said Mills. It was an easy decision for the young pilot.
When Collins and Cherry decided to form Southland, they said it was an obvious decision to bring Mills along. “I loved being part of this from the beginning,” said Mills. “It’s exciting to get up in the morning and fight your own fight, not someone else’s. And none of this would be possible if it weren’t for Johnny [Collins]. Hayden [Cherry], me, and the rest of our amazing team handle the day-to-day operations, but Johnny oversees it all.”
In addition to his duties as a line pilot, Mills also makes sure that all the aviators at Southland are kept up to speed in training. “We conduct recurrent training every six months and yearly ag training. I’ll go out with each of the pilots and have them do a check-out flight, along with fire bucket practice, in case we get called out for a firefighting mission. We want to be ready.”
For additional training, every couple of years the company brings in an outside expert. “We have a longstanding relationship with Terry Tyner. He’s a former military pilot who’s passionate about the MD 600. We call him the ‘600 Guru’ because he’s also an engineer who can take them apart and put them back together. He’ll come out, beat us pilots up a bit, and, because of his maintenance background, he provides training for our mechanic. He’s a great guy and great for our operation,” Mills said.
Now that Southland had the key members of the team assembled, a base was needed. During the first year, the company was stationed at Invercargill Airport. A decrepit hangar combined with strong coastal winds and salty sea air had them searching further inland. An old peat factory with a former school building next door was found, and became the new home. But there was still one final, quite significant part of the equation missing: the right aircraft.
When the split from Heliventures was made, three MD 520Ns, with the unique NOTAR anti-torque system, were brought over. With more than 10,000 flight hours in his logbook, Cherry has flown quite a selection of helicopters. Pressed for a favorite, he has a soft spot for the 520N. However, he soon found that it was not up to the tasks that they were throwing at it. He then began to inquire about its bigger brother — the 600N.
“We did our due diligence,” he said. “We spoke with pilots who had significant hours in them, we reviewed every accident report we could find, we talked to engineers, parts suppliers — you name it,” Cherry said. “What we found was that there was a lot of bad information floating around, mostly from people who had never flown one. We found that it operates a lot like the 520 but it’s more stable, it’s more powerful, it’s faster, and probably nicer to fly.”
Word got out that Southland was on the hunt for some MD 600s, and it soon received a call from a broker who had recently found a trove of them. The Turkish police had purchased 10 600s several years prior, but had moved to a different model. “He called me up and I told him I was interested if he would take the 520s off my hands,” Cherry said.
The two made a deal, and over the next year four low-time 600s were integrated into the Southland fleet as the 520s transitioned out. “We got them with 1,000 hours on them and they’ve been great for us,” said Cherry. “Having four works perfectly because it allows us to keep three out working while one is in maintenance. They have become true workhorses and tackle everything we have asked of them.”
Each helicopter is outfitted identically, making the move from ship to ship easier for the pilots. The equipment list includes a Garmin avionics package with Aera 660 five-inch touchscreen GPS mapping units, a GMA 345 audio panel, and dual GTR 225 radios. Stratus transponders and USB power units round out the center stack. TracPlus RockAIR GPS devices allow for high-resolution tracking, two-way messaging, and emergency flight monitoring.
With the majority of the work that Southland handles being agricultural, the most efficient and precise method of application is a priority. To achieve this, the team has turned to the latest TracMap offering. The TML-A GPS aviation guidance unit features a large, full-color touchscreen and easy-to-use interface that allows pilots to plan their spraying jobs and monitor progress in real-time with satellite and topographic maps. “We have the latest version and they are wonderful,” said Mills. “It allows our pilots to see exactly where the product is being placed so there is less waste and more accurate application.”
Two primary methods of administering fertilizers and pesticides are utilized, depending on the type of compound. For spraying, the aircraft are equipped with 600-liter (160-US gallon) Oceania Aviation belly tanks, which can be installed and removed “in a matter of minutes,” said Mills. When dropping fertilizer or other components, the company uses buckets that can hold up to 1,210 lb. (550 kg) of material. To keep the operation fully in-house, Southland also owns the ground trucks used for transport, loading, and fueling. A ground crew of four personnel handles the land-based tasks while Cherry and Mills, along with pilots Paul Claridge and Logan Sterling, take on the aerial duties.
Chief engineer Paul Tracey has the responsibility of making sure the fleet stays airborne. After learning his trade in the military, where he maintained a variety of helicopters, including Hueys and Leonardo AW109s, he worked at Flightline Aviation (which became Oceania Aviation in 2019) where he maintained MD 500s. “We were working on Heliventures’ MD 520s, and when Southland split off, I signed on with them,” he told Vertical. “[Cherry] was quite aggressive with what he wanted to do — heading out on his own, trying new aircraft that no one else was using. I liked the challenge of all that.”
Tracey echoes the rest of the team when discussing the 600s. “There aren’t a lot of them around, so working on them and finding parts can be difficult, but we know what we need and try to keep a year of regularly scheduled items on hand,” he said. “We’ve established as many contacts as we can, both locally and worldwide, of others flying them, and that helps a lot.” With just himself and occasional contracted assistance, Tracey keeps quite busy, but he’s clear on his enjoyment of the job. “I like doing things with the 600s that others haven’t done, and I really like the one-on-one with Hayden [Cherry]. There’s always something new here.”
Working the land
In terms of the company’s workload, Cherry said Southland will do “pretty much anything” a customer needs. But with over 3,000 individual farms encompassing more than 2.6 million acres in the region, ag work continues to occupy the lion’s share of Southland’s flying. “We do the occasional tour or wedding or hunting trip, but we’ve found our niche with agricultural work,” he said. “That makes up 95 percent of our jobs.” With this emphasis on ag work, coupled with the experience Cherry’s team brings to the table, Southland has established a solid reputation in the southern regions around Invercargill.
“We know the farmers and the people that look after the crops, the companies providing the chemicals, and we all work together towards a common goal of ensuring the best end product at the best possible price,” said Cherry.
The trio of Collins, Cherry, and Mills have shown that they are open to any challenge the future may throw at them. They took a chance when they went out on their own and gambled on an aircraft that was untested in their line of work. What does the future hold for the partners? “More aircraft are always on our mind,” Cherry said. “But we won’t stretch ourselves beyond having enough work to support it. It all depends on what happens around us in the farming industry. What we have now is working just fine, but if the need arises, we’ll be ready.”
While the company name has only been around for five years, the wealth of pooled experience has established Southland Helicopters as a top choice for rotary-wing operations in the southern regions of New Zealand. A forward-thinking management group, a solid fleet of perfectly-suited aircraft, and a reputation of safety and commitment to the farmers that employ them all add up to a bright future for the team at Southland Helicopters.