Rescue Helicopter Pilot – Australia

"An ex-Army Apache pilot now saving lives as a rescue helicopter pilot down under, Gav takes us through the highs, the lows and everything in between in a day in the life...."
Helicopter rescue pilot

We’re delighted to be able to bring you the first article in 2024 from Gav, an ex Army Apache pilot currently operating as a rescue pilot in Australia . He’s very kindly given his time to talk you through what his day to day working life consists of, and the challenges and adventures along the way!

Alongside saving lives, Gav runs Hydrofoil Academy Australia, Sydneys no1 wingfoiling school. If you’re down under and want to learn to foil….you know where to go!

Company, Position & Base?

Toll Ambulance Rescue Helicopter, EMS/SAR – Line Pilot, Sydney Australia

Can you summarise your job role as a helicopter pilot in one sentence?

Safely deliver specialist medical teams to provide a Search and Rescue role to the community of NSW. 

Gav and the AW139

Example of a typical “day in the life” of a helicopter rescue pilot?

Here’s a video made by Gav to sum it up!


Why did you choose this helicopter pilot job & what path did you take to get here?

For as long as I can remember I wanted to fly helicopters. In my opinion, this role is the best job in the industry; I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s challenging, varied, rewarding, provides a sense of purpose and my colleagues are also my mates!

My aviation career began in the British Army as an Apache Helicopter Pilot. After 12 years service I joined the East Anglian Air Ambulance as an EMS pilot. I then took an offshore role, servicing windfarms in the North Sea to gain some winching experience.

In 2018 my family moved to Australia and after some further offshore work in Queensland, I was successful in my application to join the rescue helicopter, based in Sydney. 

2 favourite aspects of the rescue helicopter pilot job?

  • A water rescue/sea cliff winch mission. These types of mission are fast paced, require the entire team to be working at the top of their game in unison and are very rewarding when it goes well. Conversely, it can be the worst part of the job when the patient outcome is unsuccessful. 
  • The people I work with. There is zero egos and/or arrogance at the base. The pilots and crewman don’t feel the need to prove themselves, they let their work do the talking. I have no issues asking other pilots for help and advice on tackling a certain mission and I will go out of my way to help them too. It’s the best working environment I’ve ever been a part of. 


One great thing about your company

The “no blame” culture. I always feel supported for the decisions I make, even if I am wrong. As long as we are open/honest and learn from our mistakes (and the mistakes of others), we are fully backed by the company. We are lucky that the most senior pilots are very experienced and levelheaded operators who understand the pressures we are under. The is a mutual trust and respect between the line pilots and management.  


What do you find the 2 most challenging aspects or impacts?

  • Turning a job down due to weather or an unacceptable risk. My primary focus is getting the crew home safely. If that means delaying until the weather improves, declining the task or aborting mid-mission, so be it. That being said, it’s a very hard decision to make when you know someone is in desperate need of our help. It never gets easier and I spend days thinking about it after. 
  • Dealing with the aftermath (mental health) of certain missions, particularly those involving kids. The company is very supportive in this field, providing bespoke counselling and time off but it’s still a process you have to be able to cope with. Over the years I have built a collection of tools to help me deal with this. 

Most surprising part of the job for you?

Dealing with the weather in Australia. I thought it would be wall to wall sunshine and sea breezes all year. How wrong I was!  

Most memorable day on the job as a helicopter rescue pilot?

Winching a fallen walker to safety (from a cliff) a few hundred meters from my house whist my little boy watched on, pictured below.

 

Gav winching infront of his son

If you could go back to the start of your career as a helicopter pilot and do anything differently, what would it be and why?

It sounds arrogant to say, but I don’t think I would have changed anything. In the early stages of my flying career I jumped at any opportunity that came up, even if it took me way out of my comfort zone. I continued this mindset throughout my flying life and it lead me to where I am now. I wouldn’t change that. Sure, I’m made heaps of mistakes and made more stupid errors than I can remember but I’ve always learned the lesson, taken it on board and moved on. 


Most commonly asked flying question you get at a party? What’s your answer?

Q:I’ve heard Apache pilots can move their eyes independently of each other, is this true? 

A: No, but we did have to learn to operate Night Vision System (Forward looking Infrared) using just one eye. We had to use a Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) or “Monocle” over our right eye which projected the FLIR image. When on operations you had a single tube NVG over your left eye and the HMD over your right. It took some getting used too but after time it becomes second nature.

Apache


Would you recommend your career path to budding or current helicopter pilots right now? Any advice for them?

Take all the opportunities that come along. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and always ask people for help and advice. I’ve been surprise how much help people are willing to give in the industry, even from complete strangers.


Rough flying hours per month

In this role 30-50



What do you want your life to look like in 5 years time?

No change, I’m exactly were I want to be! 

What does a “bad day at work” look like for you

When we are called to an accident involving a child. Even when the outcome is good, its an emotional day for all involved. 

What does a “great day at work” look like for you

Being challenged with the mission but finding a solution, getting the crews to the patient and recovering them safety to a hospital. 


What impact does the job have on your mental or physical health? 

The mental health impacts are significant. On any given mission we are going to the worse day of someone’s life. We see some terrible things and are exposed to major trauma on a regular basis. Its critical that you build robust and healthy coping mechanisms to succeed in this role.

What strategies do you have for maintaining positive mental & physical health that could be useful to other pilots? i.e exercise, social connection, eating healthy etc

For me, two things work. Firstly is exercise and immersing myself in the natural environment. I love to surf and I try and get in the ocean everyday. I’m so lucky that I live somewhere I can do this. There is seldom a day I can’t doing something whether that’s surfing, wing foiling, kitesurfing or swimming. If I don’t get my “fix” I can feel my mood change. 

The second, is using the GEM model. Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness. When I come home from a terrible day I take the time to remind myself how lucky I am to be healthy and injury free. I have an amazing family who are safe and well; I make sure I acknowledge this. If I do feel excessively low or impacted by a mission it’s important to acknowledge it, accept that this is OK to feel like this and seek help. Our company gives us free access to mental health professionals and I use this all the time. I am open and honest about this to my colleagues and I know they actively use it too.



Hydrofoil Academy Australia

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As we mentioned at the start – Gav also runs Hydrofoil Academy Australia – Sydneys No1 Wingfoil academy. Head over to the website to check it out!

We’d like to really thank Gav for taking the time to answer our questions & for his transparency about his work & life. We’re extremely grateful he gave up his time to share his experience, and looking forward to hearing how his next few years as a rescue helicopter pilot play out!


To follow Gav’s journey, check out his Youtube Channel

Helpful Links

Hydrofoil Academy Australia – Sydneys No.1 foiling school

Toll Helicopters Australia

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