Ambulance bosses were ready to send an air ambulance 75 miles to a crash victim, despite a paramedic crew being on a meal break just four miles away.
Motorcyclist Glen Hollis, 39, suffered a broken arm in a collision with a car in the village of Eastgate in Weardale.
But because crews are not paid for meal breaks, the air ambulance was scrambled from RAF Boulmer in Northumberland.
It was only because Mr Hollis was able to call one of the nearby crew direct, that the helicopter was recalled.
The North East Ambulance Service Trust (NEAS) is involved in a long-running dispute with union leaders over payments for staff during meal breaks.
The deadlock means paramedics on assigned meal breaks are not disturbed.
Over the past 18 months five people have died in locations where ambulance crews were nearby and on assigned meal breaks and crews from further afield sent instead.
Simon Featherston, chief executive of the trust, said: "We do occasionally get incidents like this one.
"But I can absolutely assure the public that we will send the nearest available resource to any incident, anywhere in the North East.
"We are working within the remit of a national agreement. We have tried very hard to find an alternative arrangement for the meal break period, but haven't been able to find one that fits within that agreement."
A spokesman for the union Unison described the situation as "ludicrous."
Ambulance crews want extra cash if they volunteer to forego guaranteed meal breaks. The national agreement states crews should work 37.5 hours a week.