John Funnell: Daring Adventures of a Search and Rescue Pilot

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 4 October 2016

John Funnell is one of our first search and rescue helicopter pilots. But after almost 50 years in the skies he’s hanging up his headset.

He is the man behind the scenes of many headlines, from disaster relief in tsunami-ravaged Bandah Aceh, to an unprecedented rescue of a shark attack victim in sub-Antarctica. The latter earning him the New Zealand Bravery Medal.

John has just published his memoirs, Rescue Pilot - The Daring Adventures of a New Zealand Search and Rescue Pilot - which recounts many of his rescue missions. 

In it he describes his job as 'hours of boredom and moments of terror'.

He got interested in flying watching crop sprayers a boy growing up on a dairy farm in Manawatu and got a flying licence in just three days when he was 16.

Eventually he learnt to fly helicopters and was top dressing in Wairarapa when he became involved in search and rescue.  

“Some of the stuff we did in the early days we wouldn’t be able to do today, so there was a fair bit of experimenting went on.”

He still remembers his first rescue mission.

“I was called out to help a shepherd who had fallen and badly fractured his femur and there was really no other way of getting him out.

“He was just strapped to the skids on the helicopter like they did on MASH.”

In those early days John had to work out his own triage system – he had no medical training.

“If the person was walking around and talking, they were not too bad on the John Furnell scale.

“If they were lying on the ground and not responding they were considered serious, if they had a pulse, if they didn’t have a pulse they were probably dead.

“And that was basically how we did it.”

From these humble beginnings an extraordinary career was born.

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Photo: Supplied