Helicopter wreck discovery: Families' emotions raw
ALANA DIXON, JOHN EDENS AND NICOLA BRENNAN-TUPARA
The families of a helicopter pilot and passenger missing for almost nine years are grieving again after the discovery of helicopter wreckage in Fiordland.
Police yesterday confirmed the wreckage found near the Humboldt Falls was that of a Hughes 500 helicopter that went missing in 2004.
The helicopter had been carrying the pilot, Campbell Montgomerie, 27, of Waikato, and his girlfriend, Hannah Rose Timings, 28, of Gloucestershire, England.
The pair have yet to be formally identified. It will be done through DNA.
Both families have been contacted and Mr Montgomerie's parents, Liz and Ian, travelled to Queenstown yesterday to see the wreckage first-hand and meet the searchers.
"It's still a shock," a tearful Chris Montgomerie, the pilot's sister, said yesterday.
"It's the shock of it that's bringing up a lot of stuff.
"I guess it's something we always thought might happen, but it's a bolt out of the blue, really."
It was something the family had always hoped for.
"But it still feels like we said our goodbyes nine years ago. So in my mind, we've had that closure. But I guess that's why it's strange how raw it still feels, actually," she said.
The accident unfolded after the pair flew from Queenstown bound for Milford on January 2, 2004, but set down near the Howden Hut on the Routeburn track in bad weather.
After taking off from the helipad at the hut, they were not seen again. They were declared dead at an inquest in Te Anau in August 2004.
Yesterday morning, seven police search-and-rescue specialists and two personnel from an Alpine Cliff Rescue team were flown by helicopter to the foot of three sheer rockfaces, at an altitude of 1340 metres, just above where the first traces of the wreckage were found.
Parts of the helicopter were seen among rocks and scrub just above the snowline, and showed the extent of the accident impact.
Extensively damaged sections of the helicopter, barely visible yesterday from the air because of their similar colour to the scrub and rocks, as well as intermittent cloud, were scattered throughout the rugged terrain.
The surrounding terrain was so difficult that the two alpine cliff rescue team members were unable to be seen easily from the helicopter without high-visibility gear, after they were taken to the site.
Inspector Olaf Jensen, one of those who travelled to Te Anau, said that on January 3, 2004, the helicopter had been en route in difficult weather from Howden Hut to Milford Sound when it lost radio contact with the Milford Radio Tower shortly before 9am.
An extensive search and rescue operation was mounted the same day throughout the Hollyford Valley.
The scenario-based search covered the various routes that the helicopter might have taken from Lake Howden to Milford Sound and included more than 200 flying hours and 2500 man-hours, Mr Jensen said.
The wreckage was found at the extremity of the original search area, which comprised extraordinarily difficult and complex terrain, he said.
The wreckage was spotted about 4pm on Wednesday by Queenstown-based helicopter pilot Brendan Hiatt.
Mr Hiatt said he was on his way back to Queenstown after picking up two American couples who had been on a cruise around Milford Sound, when he saw something below.
"I just spotted something glinting that just didn't look quite right among the snow, so I said ‘We'll just take a look'.
"It's happened before, where you see a glinting rock or something that you go in closer for a look at.
"We got close and it was pretty evident what it was."
The helicopter got within about 20m of the wreckage. Those on board could see a section of the tail and a rotor blade, he said.
"It was destroyed. It's been a very, very violent impact," he said.
The remote location was likely the reason why the helicopter had not been found.
"The lower part of the valley is pretty bushy so the access in there would be pretty difficult.
"That's probably why nobody's come across it before.
"There's plenty of them [missing aircraft] around, though, so you're always looking, I guess."
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Richards said yesterday that two police disaster victim identification officers had been at the site all day yesterday photographing and taking video of the scene.
The images would be passed on to the authority for review to see if there were any obvious indicators of equipment or mechanical failure which might result in a key safety lesson.
However, it looked like the wreckage was the subject of a fire and that, coupled with sustained exposure to extreme weather conditions since 2004, would make it difficult to assess, he said.
The authority was assisting police with any records from its files that might help identify the helicopter, he said.
COUPLE HAD FINAL NIGHT IN TRACK HUT
The couple spent their last night at the Howden Hut, eating, drinking and playing cards with a group of trampers.
They had turned up unexpectedly when the weather closed in and they were unable to reach Milford Sound from Queenstown in January, 2004.
They were never seen again after leaving in the morning.
Yesterday helicopter wreckage was found and police last night confirmed it was the missing Hughes 500.
Among the trampers at the hut were New Zealand-born Brendan Grainger and his wife, who were living in the United States, but were on holiday and walking the Routeburn Track.
Mr Grainger said it was the last night on the track for his group and a couple of other trampers.
"We combined all our food and cooked up a feast for us all.
"Campbell and Hannah didn't have any food, but Campbell did have a couple of bottles of wine. After we'd drunk it all, out of our plastic mugs, he said: 'Not bad for a $200 bottle'. I just about fell off my chair. It was a really nice night. Awesome," he said.
The trampers farewelled the helicopter in the morning and it was not until 6pm they learned the pair had not reached their destination.
"The ironic thing is he'd been cautious enough to land at Howden Hut that night. The next day he took off in really low cloud.
"He really just wanted to get to Milford Sound and show her around."
In the years since, Mr Grainger checked regularly to see if the helicopter had been found and was shocked to learn yesterday about the discovery of the wreckage.
"It must be bittersweet for the family. I hope it will bring some closure for them."
FIORDLAND GIVES UP A SECRET
Private investigators who helped search for the missing Hughes 500 helicopter in remote Fiordland were yesterday relieved the eight-year mystery was solved.
Retired Civil Aviation Authority investigator Tom McCready and Westpac search and rescue pilot Darryl Sherwin, who helped recover the wreckage of multimillionaire Michael Erceg's helicopter in 2005, spent long hours privately investigating the disappearance of ZK-HNW.
Mr McCready said the possibility of finding the wreckage in Fiordland was remote.
They investigated fuel efficiency, GPS co-ordinates and plotted tracks using radio records for the Hughes 500, which was last reported as nine nautical miles (16.5 kilometres) out of Milford.
"We put a lot of effort into it.
"A lot of search and rescue people will tell you it's extraordinary how often the aircraft are found very close to where they were last seen but they are very hard to find. New Zealand has very good LandSAR organisations and they do extremely well but the fact remains that finding an aircraft in difficult terrain is extremely difficult, even sometimes when you know where it is."
Mr Sherwin said he and other private investigators compiled witness reports, GPS data from an identical model, a Garmin 195, and logged VHF radio coverage, a line-of-sight positioning method used in mountainous terrain without radar.
Radio coverage was lost about 9pm and it would be interesting to find out whether a crash analysis could determine the time of impact, he said.
"Hunters and trampers, if they come across anything that seems out of place . . . [they should] photograph [it] or carry it out.
"It's great news for the families, giving them some sort of closure and solves another mystery in aviation history."
Rescuers spent 204 flying hours and 2300 man hours searching the mountainous area where the four-seater privately owned helicopter was lost.
The Hughes 500 was reportedly the only missing helicopter in New Zealand and its discovery reduces the number of missing aircraft to 17.
- © Fairfax NZ News