Royal New Zealand Air Force Squadron Leader George MacInnes has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts while leading four of his team members during a rescue operation in Canterbury in May 2021.
” Flooding in Christchurch were in full swing at the time,” McInnes tells RNZ’s Anna Thomas of the day.
It was the second Air Force NH90 helicopter to be called to the area, but the first one got stuck due to technical problems.
“The New Zealand Police called us around 9pm, the weather was quite bad but at the time it was not too bad to possibly save the three gentlemen.
“The local helicopter company was unable to get airborne because it was outside of the weather conditions, which at the time were slightly different than Air Force weather restrictions.”
They landed near a paddock where they saw a man clinging to a tree in a raging river-like flood.
A preliminary assessment showed it was too dangerous for them to attempt a rescue, but they were called back by the police when the flood got worse and a quick attempt by water rescuers failed, he said.
“It was pretty strong, you’re probably looking at 60km/h gusts,” he said.
“We tried to winch one of our crew off … he ended up in the water and it was a bit of an ordeal for him.
“He got close to these gentlemen… but couldn’t [reach him]and he ended up under the water for a while, so we pulled him out and he was very shaken up, and at that point I had to decide to call off the attempt because it was too dangerous.”
On the way to the location of another rescue post, the man, who was stuck in a tree, dove into the water and officials lost sight of him in the darkness of the night.
“We got a call on the radio from the police and search and rescue, who were very distraught at the time, asking if we could come back to have a look.”
After 10 minutes of searching, the man was spotted holding on to a branch in the flood water.
“So very quickly we sent our crewman back to the winch, but the way the guy was holding on to the tree with his arms around the tree, we couldn’t properly strap him down to secure him properly.
“Our crew member, Adam, he practically picked this guy up with his strength and held him while we got them across the river bank.
“It was quite an amazing feat of strength and perseverance by Adam.”
Although the team was well trained in rescue scenarios and the crew was experienced, there was no way to fully train a rapid water rescue at night in poor conditions, he said.
“Of course, luck is on our side. The cargo master risked his life when I lowered him with the winch, and that’s what comes to my mind the most. He was able to hold the man who was hanging upside down at the end of the wire. he did not have such sheer strength and tenacity that a man would probably die.
“I was lucky enough to have the right crew in the right helicopter in the right place at the right time. It was a combination of everything going right for the people in the water.”
In Ashburton Forks, they found two men stuck in a car where the river had overflowed its banks.
“During the second rescue, we no longer wanted to lower the crew down the wire because they were exhausted.
“We were trying to talk to these guys in their car about how to put a seat belt on and get them back up safely.”
While MacInnes was aware of the risks, he said he did not dwell on them at the time and focused solely on mitigating them.
“I didn’t sleep that night, that’s for sure.
“I went beyond the team and sent one of my former comrades down the wire, which almost could not have gone badly.”
He believed that everything went well thanks to the efforts of the entire team.
Asked what he would do to celebrate the honour, he said: “I’ll just have a beer with my family and think and text the rest of the team and tell them they deserve it more than me, to be honest . ; Nicole, Jen, Bruce and of course Adam, they are the stars of the show. I was just there pushing them as hard as I could to get the best performance.”
McInnes has now left the Air Force and works for PHI International, which delivers helicopters to oil rigs in Western Australia.
Confession leaves deployed team leader ‘lost for words’
Lt. Col. Vanessa Ropitini, who gave just two weeks’ notice that she was going to Europe to support the international response to the Russian-Ukrainian war, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
“When it was confirmed that we were going to go, we had 10 to 14 days from the time of confirmation to the time we got on the plane, so it [the Distinguished Service Decoration] feels like a small reward for just leaving my family on such short notice, and it makes it all worth it when you think about it,” Ropitini said.
“I was lucky that at that time I worked in the operational headquarters of our joint forces and took part in planning. So in two weeks, I went into it with a lot of knowledge,” she said.
“I don’t think I could have done it without the support and acceptance of my family and my husband just stepping in and carrying on.
“It was a huge surprise, it’s something you expect to happen to other people, but when it happens to you, I’m just at a loss for words to be honest.”
She liaised with teams from 26 countries as the International Donor Coordination Center (IDCC) Logistics Team Commander.
In her role, she reviews the donations given to Ukraine by various countries and ensures that they can be used to their fullest extent.
“There were many countries that donated kits that they determined they wouldn’t necessarily need in the near future, but they didn’t come with the spare parts, the ammunition, the training that the Ukrainians needed to receive that donation and use it immediately.”
While New Zealand’s military can be underestimated, Ukrainians have recognized the country’s contribution, Ropitini said.
“The Ukrainians, with whom we worked every day, face to face, were simply amazed and very grateful that a tiny little country at the bottom of the world did what we undertook at that time … to support them.
“Just that recognition from them and their gratitude was just incredible.”
She believed that New Zealand’s positive reputation came from its people’s attitude.
“Plus we get world-class training and we’re real team players, we just want to do our best in the environment we’re in.”
She also thanked the person who applied to be considered for the honor roll.
“A lot of the time in the NZDF we’re just working and getting the job done and there’s a lot of people who have probably done the job and deserve recognition but aren’t being recognised, so for someone to write that is really amazing.
“When you go through your military career, you go through highs and lows, and it happened at an opportune time for me. It confirmed why I stay in the military, it gave me a sense of purpose, I got to deal with such a very diverse group of people and it was just a great opportunity.”