Healthy Bastards Bush Pilot Champs

In recent years many self confessed couch potatoes have been captivated by the plethora of reality TV shows that dominate our TV screens. Pilots and aviation buffs have especially enjoyed series' such as Flying Wild Alaska, and Alaska Wing Men. We all realise many scenes are highly exaggerated, however there's something about this last bastion of pioneering aviation that enamours us to keep watching week after week.

Whether it's with the help of these shows or not, there's no doubt that bush flying is gaining in popularity, whilst other forms of aviation are steadily in decline. Flight training is no exception, as is clearly evident by talking to any Aero Club around New Zealand. At the Marlborough Aero Club total flying hours for 2013 were poised to drop continue their steady decline, after a continuous drop from the heady days of previous years.

Whilst new students were sadly lacking, one thing there was still plenty of in club members was passion. Passion for flying. Passion for our airfield at Omaka. And amongst a fair few of us - a passion for bush flying.

Established airports and long runways have no appeal for bush pilots. For them it's the lure of a tiny grassy clearing amongst a hill face covered in scrub, a gravel bar littered with rocks and driftwood in a South Island braided riverbed, or a West Coast beach that hasn't seen a human footprint for months or even years. It's places like these that offer the unique challenge to land an aircraft – and take it off again

  • Strip Flying with Marlborough Aero Club in Marlborough NZ

For those lucky enough to call themselves bush pilots, this form of flying gives the ability to escape the ties and stresses of everyday life, and to experience parts of this wonderful country that most have not, and will not ever have access to. And to stay alive, it requires the ability to fly the aircraft to the tightest margins with very little room for error, and an attention to detail that is not required in many other forms of aviation. It's life on the edge in a world full of rules and regulation, with the best of New Zealand's spectacular beauty thrown in as a bonus – and therein lies the attraction ... the addiction of bush flying.

Many attempts had been made over the years by the committee of the Marlborough Aero Club to stem the decline in flying hours. New aircraft types, weekend “fly-aways”, and BBQ lunches offered a very short term respite, but did nothing to actually address the real issue. In one meeting, a committee member in a moment of inspired clarity, declared that we are not attracting new members or students because flying is just simply not fun any more. In our endless efforts to remove all element of risk, and make it safer than sitting at home on the couch, we had inadvertently taken away the fun, and the challenge, and the romance, and the risk, and the passion from our beloved sport of flight.

The committee could hardly argue with this thinking. It was the truth. “What we need to do is be different to the rest. While the other flying schools are churning though masses of foreign students for the airlines, we need to be utilizing our skills, unique location, and most of all our passion for bush flying. We should be offering airstrip flying courses as our primary form of training, and we should market it by running an annual, national bush flying competition in the form of a “Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) event”.

It was agreed unanimously that the idea held merit – indeed a lot more merit than anything else on the cards.

One big negative however, was the risk factor. After years of relentless effort by well meaning bureaucrats, it could not be argued that aviation was not safe. It was very safe. So were we being now irresponsible for offering a form of flying with more inherent risks? What would people say about us if there was an accident? What were the insurance issues? We decided that we would deal with all those things as they arose, but the key to the idea was to offer the best training we possibly could, and to give our students heaps of fun along the way.

There had been other STOL competitions in New Zealand, but nothing on the scale we were proposing. We were quietly thinking of an event held each May in Valdez, Alaska as our sounding board. People in the know talk of this event in hushed tones, as it is the premier STOL competition in the world without doubt. We made a date for the first competition – Saturday 2nd February 2013.

The thing we didn't have however was a name for the event. We needed something catchy that portrayed the nature of the day, but more than that we wanted something edgy, that pushed the boundaries just a little of what is the norm in todays PC world.

  • Healthy Bastards bush pilot champs at Marlborough Aero Club in Marlborough NZ

Enter “Doctor Dave” from Bulls Flying Doctor Service.

Dave Baldwin, affectionately known by most New Zealand pilots as “Dr. Dave”, owns and runs a flying doctor service offering medical checks to pilots in remote locations. Dave is one of life's more interesting characters! There are many words one could use to describe him ... but the best would be “passionate”. Dave is passionate about flying, passionate about back country New Zealand, but most of all he's passionate about doing something about mens health(or the lack of it). He is also very “un-PC”, and is using this unique combination of interests to promote his “Healthy Bastards Mens Health” campaign. He has thousands of followers on his weekly Facebook health tips, not to mention a Healthy Bastards book, DVD, followers club, and more. He also fancies sponsoring like minded events in an effort to promote his cause.

It has been a match made in heaven. Our brand new STOL competition became the “Healthy Bastards Bush Pilot Champs”, with Dr. Dave as the major sponsor. We were now under way, and began to attract other local sponsors, including Sounds Air, Spy Valley Wines and Simply Avionics.

We did our best to get Aero Clubs on board by sending colour posters for them to put on their noticeboards. Ads were run in all the major aviation magazines in the three months leading up to the event. The publicity gained by Dr. Dave in his weekly emails was invaluable. But by far the most effective marketing was the fact that it promised fun! There weren't many rules, and we kept it inexpensive to enter. Those key factors seemed to invoke an interest throughout the country that we had only dreamed of. The 2013 event saw 56 aircraft entered, while the 2014 event had 68 entries from Auckland to Invercargill.

  • Marlborough Aero Club members in Marlborough NZ
  • Healthy Bastards bush pilot champs at Marlborough Aero Club in Marlborough NZ

Many local Aero Club members pitched in and offered their time prior to and on the day. Key to the event was the fun factor, so we offered free landing fees and camping on the airfield, and had a live commentary team providing a light hearted yet expert view of the proceedings. Evening saw a spit roast BBQ, live band, and prize giving for the winners, including various spot prizes.

The prime goal for the event was never financially motivated. Rather to get NZ pilots out there enjoying aviation and at the same time bettering their skill and safety levels by offering our airstrip training as part of the package.

It seems we got the mix right, as the first two competitions have been huge successes, annual flying hours for the Aero Club have increased noticeably - marking a reverse in trend for the first time in 6 years.

Nigel Griffith – winner 2013/2014 comments:

“This competition has been huge. It has all the makings of a long term operation due to the professional way it has been approached. The event is run like clockwork, safety is at the top of the list followed very closely by the humour from the commentary team - you better make sure you don’t get it wrong as it does ring through the loud speakers for a while! To bring this group of people together from around the country and let them share ideas and develop skills like this event does will do wonders for grass roots aviation in New

Our original goals of increasing the club flying hours, and putting the fun back into aviation have definitely been achieved, however we realise it is still early days, and if we can still say the same thing in 10 years, then we might just be onto a winner!