The Hughes/MD500 has been an iconic sight in New Zealand skies for decades from the time that American Mel Cain imported the very first one for venison recovery; an industry that would account for the majority of 500s imported into New Zealand. That first 500 started a love affair with this unique machine and since those days the 500, or ‘Five-Hundy’ as its commonly known, would become a stalwart of the Kiwi skies working in the ag’ industry, tourism, utility and as private machines for their owners’ use.

Even though Airbus Helicopters AS350/H125 series has made substantial inroads into the Kiwi helicopter industry, the 500 is still prevalent – with about 107 of the type still in operation around the country. It therefore wasn’t surprising that when HeliOps’ publisher Ned Dawson and Bill Hales, the owner/operator of Alpine Springs Helicopters got together the Great Kiwi 500 Fly-in was born. Ned explained that prior to Covid he and Keely Buick – wife of HeliSupport NZ’s Jason Buick – had been chatting with legendary venison industry shooters Phil Wright and Jeff Carter at Nick Wallis’s funeral in Wanaka about holding a get-together for the whole Kiwi helicopter industry. “As an industry the only times we really get together are for someone’s funeral, so Keely and I decided we would put together an event that would bring everyone together without it having to be for such a solemn occasion,” he said. Things were progressing well and they had Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum sorted as a venue. Then, just as it was about to be put out to the industry, Covid hit. “Covid put a spanner in the works and with everything getting shut down left right and centre there was no option but to postpone it,” Ned explained.

Fast forward a couple of years to a day when Ned missed a bunch of calls from Bill Hales. When he called him back, Hales said he had been thinking that they should have a 500 get-together – combining the event that Keely and he had planned, but making it for those who owned and operated the 500. Thus, the Great Kiwi 500 Fly-in was born. It was appropriate because both Hales and Dawson had been involved with the 500 for most of their lives – Bill currently has a 500C and a 500E and has operated many examples of the type over the decades on venison recovery and utility work, while Ned has been shooting images of the 500 in New Zealand since his younger years. “The 500 is such an amazing machine and was the backbone of the Kiwi venison industry when I was growing up – and I was privileged to be able to go out and shoot photos with some of the legends of this industry,” Ned explained. “The 500 is probably the one helicopter that has done more for this industry than any other type, and it’s still doing it,” added Bill.

Once it was agreed that the Great Kiwi 500 Fly-in was going to become a reality, the hard work started. Woody Blakely joined Bill and Ned to help keep things moving forward, and with Woody owning a 500E he was the perfect person to compliment Bill and Ned. Woody’s skills were important as both Ned and Bill were off on tangents getting things sorted, so Woody and Bill’s wife Gail became the glue holding everything together. It soon became obvious that there was a great deal to do to bring the event to fruition. An early decision was made to hold the event at Bill’s place in Hanmer Springs – a stunning location about an hour and a half north of Christchurch in North Canterbury, with plenty of room to land all the 500s. Several times Ned flew down from Auckland to Hanmer and Woody drove up from Christchurch so the team could sit down and work through the logistics. “It was quite daunting at the start when we sat down and realised how much work it would actually take to make this event happen,” said Woody. They were not a group to shirk a challenge, however.

It was also decided early on that the event would not be open to the public, but one where those who currently owned and operated the 500 as well as those who had been a big part of the 500 in NZ could network with the manufacturer and those who supported the type. “I approached Jason (Lindauer), a friend of mine and MD Helicopters VP – Commercial & Military about what we were planning. He was 100 percent behind it and told us they would support it in whatever way they could,” explained Ned. This was a great anchor for the event, with MD committing to bringing their brand-new President, Brad Pedersen (who actually used to work for Hughes Helicopters back in the day), Ryan Weeks – VP of Aftermarket Support, Justin Texeira – Regional Sales Manager and lead tech’ rep’ for the region Martin Griffin. This great addition to the event would enable everyone who operated a 500 in NZ to sit down and chat with those who make and support it. Other companies that are synonymous with the MD500, such as Aerometals, Trinity Aviation, Helimart and VIH Aerospace, all jumped on board to help support the event. “Without sponsors like these there was absolutely no way we could have made this event happen,” Ned explained. “We were extremely privileged with the support we got from our sponsors, so that we were able to cover the costs for everyone who attended the event, and we are extremely grateful to them,” stressed Bill.

Social media became an important part of networking with owners and operators around the country, as well as those who were interested in the event. A dedicated Facebook group was created for the event and as Bill and Ned reached out to those who owned and operated the 500, a photo of each aircraft was added along with an accumulating total, which in turn created even more interest. Word spread quickly and operator after operator confirmed their attendance. “Bill and I were really surprised at the response to the event,” explained Ned. “The numbers quickly grew. 30, 40, 50, 60 and higher until about a month out from the event we had a total of 83 machines confirmed,” he added. This included a mix of 500C, 500D, 500E, 600N, 520N and one of only a couple of 530Fs in the country. It was shaping up to be one heck of an event. Considering that Bill and Ned initially thought they might only get around 30 or so aircraft to the event, it was amazing to see the level of support from the industry.

One of the biggest logistical challenges of the event was organizing the arrival and departure of the 500s. Once Hale’s property was confirmed as the venue, they had to work out where everything would park to ensure there was plenty of space between machines so they could safely hover-taxi in and out. That’s where James McNutt and Woody excelled and, armed with a rolling measuring machine and some white paint, they spent literally hours and hours walking the paddock, determining how many 500s would fit across it and how many rows would be needed. Being a perfectionist, James also wanted to ensure that every single one would line up toe to toe and look straight.

Come fly-in day, all machines approached and landed in the back paddock and called up on a dedicated frequency, then to be called forward to one of four staging area helipads. Here they unloaded their passengers and gear before calling for permission to proceed into the landing area rows. Having an ‘ATC’ tower was a great addition, with the controller on scaffolding to gain a birds-eye view of everything going on and everything went as smooth as could be expected on the day. “Everything went like clockwork, and it was pretty impressive to watch – especially James and Kaitlyn guiding each machine into their parking position,” Bill recalled, and added that a nice bonus was receiving some very positive comments from a CAA member in attendance. “We had a few 500s that arrived earlier in the week to beat some of the weather in the North Island, but the majority arrived on the event day and all except a couple were on the ground by 2pm.”

The 500s came from all over New Zealand, from one end of the country to the other. There were machines from Te Anau and Southland, and from all the way up in Auckland near the top of the North Island. On average, it took the machines about two to four hours flying time to get to Hanmer Springs, but the scenery would have been stunning, especially since the preceding day and day of the fly-in were blue-bird days, with not a cloud in the sky. “We came along the coastline south from Gisborne and flew over some pretty amazing countryside that I have never flown before,” explained Motu Helicopters’ Steven Woods, who flew the 530F south. Having never flown much outside the Bay of Plenty area, Steve’s main concern was all the talking he would have to do on the radios to control towers up and down the country. The first machines started arriving about 8.30am and there was a constant flow throughout the day. While some arrived by themselves there were many groups that came in together and four, five or even six 500s coming in together were truly sights to behold. Prior to the event, Ned and Bill assembled pilot’s packs, which were sent to every pilot. These outlined approach paths, areas not to be flown over and the process everyone needed to follow when they arrived. This ensured that all the neighbours and those in the village had as little intrusion as possible and, surprisingly, everyone followed the rules and did as they were asked – well, all except one!

Getting the 500s there was only one part of the process. The team arranged a couple of large marquees for everyone to dine in and an impressive High Country Roast menu was put on. Oh, and we can’t forget about 70kg of whitebait – a Kiwi delicacy from the west coast of the South Island. As the evening’s events got underway it was great to see friendships rekindled, mates catching up with mates, the MD team constantly chatting with owners and operators and getting some valuable feedback, while some of the newbies to the industry got to sit and chat with industry legends. “I managed to catch up and chat with friends that I haven’t seen in decades,” Ned said, and this was echoed by Bill and many, many others. “Anytime you can get that many good folk together without it being a funeral is to be embraced,” commented James Ford from Aspiring Helicopters. Chatting afterwards with Ryan Weeks from MD, he said, “I don’t think there was a minute during the whole evening that I wasn’t chatting with someone about 500s. It really was an amazing event and being part of a community where the 500 is such an iconic machine was pretty special.” One iconic image taken during the evening was of 19-year-old Mia McCarthy from Auckland who had flown down in her 500C HER, chatting with 92-year-old Mel Cain from California. Mia is probably the youngest owner of a 500 in NZ and Mel flew the first 500 into the country back in the 1960s. “It was pretty cool to see the effortless spanning of generations when it comes to those who have a passion for the 500,” Dawson commented.

While the dinner and evening events were restricted to the invited guests, it was decided to open up a couple of areas to allow those interested in the event to come and watch the arrivals and departures of all the machines. It was the first time ever that this many 500s would gather in one place at one time, quite possibly creating a world record. Over 150 people eventually watched the arrivals, nearly every one with a camera which was great to see. “Once the last machine landed we opened up the landing area for those spectators and everyone else to wander around and have a close up look at all the 500s,” Bill related. “We even had Sir Tim Wallis come up from Christchurch for the afternoon to check everything out.” “When Dad found out about the event there was no way he was not coming,” explained son Toby Wallis. Although not in the best of health, Sir Tim spent quite some time being driven around the rows of 500s, posing for photos with friends and colleagues, both past and present. “The cool thing was seeing faces here that have been part of the 500 world in NZ for decades – people like Sir Tim, Harvey Hutton, Rusty Knight, James Scott, Noel Boyd, Patrick Nolan, the Deakers, Jeff Carter, Bruce Kingan, Milton Kiri, Russell Gutschlag, Richard Hayes, Michael Meates, Bruce Harvey and many others – it really was pretty special,” Ned opined.

Cyclone Gabrielle and its devastating effect on the east coast of the North Island did throw a spanner in the works for the event, as a number of machines had to pull out of attending to stay and support their local communities. This was a no brainer for those concerned and, while it was sad to not see them at the event, they had the complete support of everyone in Hanmer. In fact, a number of items were put up for auction at the Great Kiwi 500 Fly-in and $40,000 was raised to support relief efforts up north, with an MD500 rotor blade signed by every pilot who flew a 500 to the event as well as some of the legends of the Kiwi helicopter industry being the biggest fund raiser on the night. The organizers offer a big shoutout to all those who bid on the auctions and the $40,000 was recently given to Farmlands, to purchase fencing materials for some of the farmers who had their properties destroyed in the Hawkes Bay and Bay of Plenty. $5,000 worth of fencing materials were being donated to each farmer so the money raised at the fly-in went towards helping eight farmers rebuild their properties. “It is a great feeling to know that we were able to dig deep and raise some dollars for our fellow Kiwis up north” said Bill, Woody and Ned. “As an industry we work with the farming community daily so doing something like this to give back to them is great,” they added.

Ned, Bill and Woody would like to say a heartfelt thankyou to every owner and operator who brought their 500 to the event. “Our goal was to bring everyone involved with the 500 in NZ over the decades together at an event that wasn’t a funeral, to somewhere we could also enjoy great food, have a drink and catch up with mates – old and new. The 500 community is a pretty special one here in New Zealand – full of unique characters and some pretty cool stories and adventures. Judging by the feedback we got after the event we think we nailed it,” said Ned. “Without the amazing volunteers who helped us we could not have pulled this off –Morgan handling the accommodation prior to the event and then looking after the registrations, James and Kaitlyn moving machines around the place, those who handled the parking, those who manned the gates, Tom T. Turkey who drove the ride on lawnmower,” Bill added. “And a very special thanks to Bill’s wife Gail for her support of Bill and all of us as we worked to make this happen,” concluded Ned.

Will there be a 2025 Great Kiwi 500 Fly-in? – Watch This Space…….