The pilot – a man of faith and courage

The pilot – a man of faith and courage

Mark Sullivan is lucky to be alive. The pilot – a man of faith and courage – shares his story of rescue and recovery.


In August 2022, the New Zealand Cessna 180-185 (Flying) Group gathered for a weekend in Blenheim. Flying planes specially designed for landing on rough terrain, the group had spent Saturday in the region demonstrating their skills on several challenging airstrips for which the aircraft is designed.

While most of the group were preparing for more flying on Sunday, one of their members, Mark Sullivan from Christchurch, was heading home for work the next day.

As Vicar of Christchurch’s Anglican Parish of Heathcote and Mt Pleasant, Sunday was Mark’s busy day. The week ahead looked full as well, with a parishioner funeral to prepare for on Monday.

Mark had the Blenheim-based bus driver with him and had made arrangements for him to continue back to Blenheim with another aircraft. As they were approaching the farm strip near Murchison, the overcast conditions disguised the rising terrain over which they were flying and the Cessna’s right passenger side wing glanced a ridge at low speed, crash landing in a swamp below. The plane had a full tank of fuel, and the fuselage had collapsed. Mark was still unconscious, but Gary was able to release Mark’s seatbelt allowing him to roll out into the muddy swamp.

Mark’s emergency locater beacon went off, and two rescue helicopters were immediately dispatched – one from GCH Aviation’s Nelson base, and the other from GCH in Greymouth. Incredibly, one was piloted by Mark’s old friend Tim Douglas-Clifford, whose wedding he had conducted years earlier.

Meanwhile, back in Christchurch, Mark’s wife Sue was immediately notified when his locator beacon went off. It was the longest 30 minutes of her life waiting for news of Mark’s fate. When the news that he was alive finally came through , the close-knit family – Sue and their three adult children, Tim, Hamish and Georgia – immediately hit the road to drive north.

After finding a safe place to land and some careful manoeuvring, paramedics were able to stabilise Mark and fly both back to Nelson Hospital. Thankfully, Gary had escaped with a just a broken rib. For Mark it was a different story.

Mark’s list of serious injuries was long. Subdural haematoma (bleeding to the brain), smashed left jaw, fractured right jaw, four missing teeth, cut tendons on the left hand, right knee cap injured, and two broken ankles.

As the extent of his injuries were revealed, after an operation in Nelson, he was able to transferred by the rescue helicopter’s sister service, the NZ Flying Doctor Service to Christchurch.

Sue accompanied him on the air ambulance. She remembers every detail of the flight, and is so grateful for the care they were both given in the air. They were transferred door-to-door via land ambulance into the plane from Nelson Airport to GCH Aviation’s specialist facility at Christchurch Airport, and immediately transferred by ambulance from there to Christchurch Hospital.

Mark says he remembers very little of the flight home. “On reflection I think that was because the care was so good, everyone was so kind. I felt guilty putting all my trust in them. They didn’t know me,  but I feel so well cared for.”

The former Deputy Fire Chief, who was ordained as an Anglican priest at the age 33, had kept fit by swimming three times a week. This was to prove vital for his recovery when  a blood clot in the leg moved to the lungs, causing pain and more time in hospital.

Eighteen months later, Mark is still recovering, with visits to orthopaedic and neurological specialists, and ongoing physiotherapy. He now lives with eight pieces of titanium in his face and jaw and new front teeth, but shows only one small scar on his chin for the many operations he has had since.

“Sue has been amazing – working full time in a busy job, and taking time to care for me. It has had a huge impact on the whole family. They have all pitched in to care for me in their own way,” he says.

Mark is back to work in the Parish one day a week, on Sundays, and hopes to be full time again very soon.

“The Parishioners have been incredible – patient with me, caring, supportive, understanding – very much reflecting the values of their faith.”

The Sullivan family’s love of aviation continues. Son Hamish, 24 is a commercial pilot based in Wanaka and Tim, 25 is an aircraft engineer currently working at RocketLab.

They have another aircraft now, a Cessna 182 more of a commuter plane – no more bush or farm strip landings – those days are over, Mark says.

“At the time I didn’t appreciate how close I came to not surviving. No other organisation has had such a profound impact in my life and I feel that our country is well served with such a professional and dedicated band of men and women. The air rescue and NZ Flying Doctor teams saved my life and I want to say a massive thanks.”