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December 2008
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Op Saxton unites community

Community spirit coupled with Kiwi ingenuity were the key contributors to the successful recovery of helicopter pilot Morgan Saxton’s body from Lake Wanaka after he went missing on a routine flight between Haast and Wanaka in early November.

'Number 8 wire technology' applied to the underwater vehicle.
Photo: Sergeant Bruce Adams O/C National Dive Squad

At its height, the search utilised around 60 people from organisations that included the navy, police, LandSar and the Civil Aviation Authority, as well as Mr Saxton’s family and friends, and the local Wanaka helicopter community. When the media were added to the mix, careful planning and coordination was required to ensure that the needs of all involved were met.

However, it wasn’t only these people who gave up their time and energy to help, says Sergeant Aaron Nicholson of Wanaka police.

“We had fantastic behind-the-scenes assistance from throughout the Wanaka community. This included the local fire service, community groups that provided food, and hotels and motels that helped with accommodation.

“Business operators offered their workshops to the police and navy dive teams so that they could prepare and organise their equipment. Volunteers also offered a four-wheel drive vehicle to the dive teams,” Aaron says.

“In a small community like this, people really pull together to get an outcome and we’re grateful for the fantastic support we received.”

While the five-day search drew support from the wider community, the creativity of police and navy divers and ex-SAS soldier and former saturation diver Brent Pihema, led to the ‘number-8 wire technology’ that produced the capability to retrieve Mr Saxton’s body from 94-metre deep water.

Police and navy divers had been using underwater sonar and camera equipment to comb the lake floor, eventually locating the helicopter’s engine at a depth of 74 metres below an area where an oil slick appeared.

After an underwater vehicle located objects too deep for the divers to get to, the possibility of using a remotely-operated vehicle to lift the objects from the lake floor was looked at.

The key was to build a retrieval rig for the remotely operated vehicle using a ski pole, climbing rope, snap hook and sticky tape.

At the end of the day, the success of the search had been underpinned by a strong community team effort.

“SAR in our patch is greater than the sum of its parts – it’s about uniting a community in a common goal for a worthwhile cause.

“Everyone involved worked very hard to return Morgan to his family and we’re all grateful to have been able to help bring closure to this tragedy,” says Aaron.

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