New Zealand Embassy Berlin, Germany

A Bundeswehr pilot in New Zealand

Bild: Bundeswehr aktuell

Captain Wilhelm Geresbeck is on a three-year pilot exchange with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in Ohakea, New Zealand. In March this year, Sylvia Jaeck of the weekly newspaper “Bundeswehr aktuell” interviewed Captain Geresbeck about his adventures and challenges in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.

The New Zealand Embassy thanks “Bundeswehr aktuell” and Sylvia Jaeck for giving us the opportunity to publish this article on our website.

The original article in German is available here (Nr. 10 vom 14.03.2011)

On the other side of the world

Captain Wilhelm Geresbeck is on a three-year pilot exchange with the Royal New Zealand Air Force

By Sylvia Jaeck

Ohakea. It is New Zealand’s breathtakingly beautiful and almost mystical landscape, not least known through films such as “The Lord of the Rings” or “Narnia”, that keeps drawing thousands of tourists and emigrants to the “other side of the world”. “The most beautiful time is spring. Then you see snow-covered mountains, green valleys and the sea on the horizon, plus of course the blue sky,” says Captain Wilhelm Geresbeck. For two years the Bell UH-1D helicopter pilot, who hails from Dachau in Bavaria, has been stationed as exchange officer with 3 Squadron at the air force base in Ohakea in New Zealand’s North Island.

It sounds like a dream assignment, and that’s what it is. But Geresbeck also learned a few weeks ago how quickly the beauty of the country can be destroyed, when on 22 February an earthquake struck in Christchurch. “It was early afternoon around 1.30 pm when I went into our staff room and found all of my comrades sitting around the television,” Geresbeck recalls. Spellbound, they watched the latest news from Christchurch, and only two hours later they were in the air, en route to the disaster zone.

With time of the essence, the helicopters were “hot refuelled” – ie refuelled with their engines running – during a stop in Woodbourne. As they flew into Christchurch the pilots saw a huge dust cloud over the city. But the true scale only became apparent to them the following day. Dust, smoke and an acrid smell lay in the air. “We flew the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members in formation,” says Geresbeck. Prime Minister John Key was able to get an overview of the situation in Christchurch and the many eastern suburbs that were hard hit by the earthquake.

For Geresbeck too this was a sobering experience. “I was in Christchurch with my sister and her husband only one year earlier. We had very positive impressions of the city. To see everything reduced to rubble was shocking. Especially when you know that people are still lying under there.” More than 160 people lost their lives in the earthquake. In the first few days after the quake the pilots were busy flying supplies, among other things. “But I would gladly have done more,” says Geresbeck.

The assignment in New Zealand is a real challenge for the German army pilots. “I have learned a lot of procedures here that we either fly differently or not at all in our home unit.” The German pilot was trained in these new procedures for three months, with particular emphasis placed on “Crew Resource Management”. “We learned a lot through this, and are still learning.” By “we” Geresbeck also means his fellow exchange pilot, Captain Lars Hilgert. The two are the first German exchange officers in New Zealand. In return, a New Zealand pilot and a flight engineer are currently stationed at the German Army Aviation School [Heeresfliegerwaffenschule] in Bückeburg.

The diverse range of tasks and possibilities is almost better than the German pilots could have wished for. Alpine flight and tactical exercises are mainly practised in the South Island. “The tropical exercises in Samoa or in Australia were an absolute highlight,” says Geresbeck glowingly. “All of this expands our flying experience amazingly.” Geresbeck learned the technical side of things before his career as a pilot. He initially trained as a civilian aircraft mechanic with the Bundeswehr, before himself becoming a soldier.

Geresbeck always wanted to travel to New Zealand. “But only for three weeks, on holiday? For me that would have been too short.” When in 2008 he learned that exchange pilots were being sought, he applied and was accepted. A possible three-week holiday became three years on exchange, in which he has also learned a lots about the culture, traditions and history of New Zealand and its indigenous people, the Maori. But the 45-year-old also knows how to make use of his free time. “I love being able to paddle my kayak along the coast,” says the keen outdoorsman.

As well as the water, he has also come to appreciate the landscape, and often goes tramping in the national parks. A hobby that should not be underestimated in New Zealand. “Time and time again hikers go missing or get lost in the huge, untouched national parks, with no cellphone reception and far from civilisation.” A few weeks ago Geresbeck was involved as an SAR pilot in the search for a missing tramper. “Search and Rescue is for me a particular challenge,” he says. A young man lost his glasses in the dense bush, then walked down on the wrong side of a range and became lost. “But he was found alive five days later. A successful mission like this one gives you a sense of satisfaction that you can’t describe.”

After deployments in Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina the assignment in New Zealand is a totally new experience. The only things he misses are his family, friends and hearty German black bread. Summing up his time as exchange officer in New Zealand Geresbeck says simply: “I am very happy that this chance came my way, and am thoroughly enjoying the ‘kiwi way of life’ with all its opportunities and challenges.”

From Bundeswehr Aktuell, 14 March 2011, p 11

Translation: NZ Embassy Berlin

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