The Wahine disaster
In 1968, Cyclone Giselle – one of the worst storms to ever reach New Zealand – hit Wellington hard. When Peter heard that the Wahine inter-island ferry had crashed ashore, he ran to the beach to help, and became an eyewitness to one of New Zealand’s biggest disasters. It would change his life.
As he watched more than 50 people drown in sight of the shore, Peter realised a helicopter would have been able to rescue people from the sea. On that beach, watching helplessly as the waters raged around his fellow New Zealanders, he said to himself: “There has to be a better way.” These seven words would inspire him to create Life Flight.
History in the making
Despite the overwhelming bureaucracy and lack of funding, Peter knew what he had to do to turn his vision of Life Flight into a reality. He learned to fly and in 1975, he created a rescue helicopter service with the help of Dr Russell Worth. Together they launched The Life Flight Trust, which would go on to save over 36,000 New Zealanders.
In 1982, Peter Button became a household name and a national hero. His life’s work was recognised with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 1987, Peter received a Queen’s Gallantry Medal for bravery.
Only two days after receiving the medal for bravery Peter died while flying the Westpac Rescue Helicopter. He was on a police mission when he hit power lines. He was only 58 years old.
Known as the heart and soul of the helicopter rescue service, thousands of people lined the streets of Wellington for the memorial service. A cortege of helicopters flew overhead to honour the nation’s loss. The Governor-General, Sir Paul Reeves, became patron of The Life Flight Trust and launched a public appeal in Peter’s memory. Donations poured in to continue his vision. They continue to pour in to this day. Life Flight was created by one man, but community support is what keeps us saving lives today.
The dream is realised
Peter Button’s incredible vision of a 24/7 dedicated emergency air service has gone on to save more than 36,000 lives around New Zealand. Through the support of the community, Life Flight has become the organisation one pioneering New Zealander dreamed of.
Peter's son, Clive Button, remains an active part of Life Flight. He was one of the original crewmen and continues to be involved as an aircraft engineer and a Life Flight ambassador. He’s proud to be championing the charity his father dreamed up on a stormy day, so long ago.