Owner's son killed in Queenstown helicopter crash
The wife of a pilot killed in a helicopter crash near Queenstown has written of the 'incredibly tough' time facing the family.
Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, aged 42, of Wanaka, and James Louis Patterson Gardner, aged 18, of Queenstown were killed yesterday afternoon in a helicopter crash near Queenstown.
Accident investigators were due to visit the scene this afternoon.
The teenager's father, former Olympic skier Murray "Mo" Gardner, was also travelling to Queenstown from his north Canterbury home.
A friend said the father was "devastated". Gardner competed in giant slalom at the Grenoble Olympics, in France, in 1968.
Meanwhile, investigators say recovering the wreckage of the Robinson 44 helicopter, may be difficult from the remote crash site in the Lochy River basin shortly after 4pm.
Victim, Patterson Gardner, was son of Louisa "Choppy" Patterson, the owner of the Over The Top, which operated the helicopter. The firm has an unblemished safety record.
Police, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission - the lead agency - and the Civil Aviation Authority are investigating.
Commission lead investigator Ian McClelland said he and another analyst would survey the crash scene today as part of initial evidence-gathering.
Crash analysts would be dropped near the river bed, then walk to the site, 9km up the Lochy River valley in a basin between the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu and North Mavora Lake.
McClelland warned access would be a challenge. "It's in the bush in moderately steep terrain.
"It's not high mountains but it is mountainous, it's hilly and in the bush."
Detective Brian Cameron, of Queenstown, said a scene examination was the next step but recovery of wreckage would not be quick.
"There's a reasonable debris field."
An emergency beacon signal was detected yesterday afternoon after the R44 was reported as overdue and, without a signal, finding the crash site would have been difficult.
Bad weather had seen CAA investigators en route to Queenstown diverted to Christchurch.
Robinson R44 helicopters are one of the most common helicopters in use in New Zealand.
In a statement issued this morning, Over The Top said it had temporarily suspended operations while it focused on supporting family and staff.
It said there was "no indication" what had caused the crash at this early stage but it was working with relevant investigating authorities.
The helicopter firm paid tribute to "our much-loved team members and friends" who died in yesterday's accident.
It said its "commitment to safety is of number one priority" and all staff were highly trained and experienced.
"Stephen has over 12 years' experience of flying in the local area and had many years' serving as a Royal Marine pilot."
The firm said also that "James was no stranger to flying" as his mother had headed up the company for 29 years.
"It's a hugely difficult time for everyone at Over the Top - both will be sorely missed by all the team and our thoughts are with the family and friends of Stephen and James," said the statement.
It asked for the families and staff to be given time to grieve and work with investigators.
JOHN KEY SAYS TEEN VICTIM WAS 'A FINE YOUNG MAN'
Prime Minister John Key was amonst those who paid tribute to Patterson Gardner this morning.
The teenager was understood to have been due to leave New Zealand today to study at an overseas university.
The Prime Minister said he knew Over the Top's owner and had met her son. A Facebook picture shows Key with the teenager on a golf course overlooking Queenstown.
"It was a privilege to meet James on a number of occasions," said Key. "He was a fine young man.
"It will be devastating for the family and my heart goes out to them."
Christine Leighton, principal of St Andrew's College, said Patterson Gardner completed five years as a boarder in 2014.
"It's just tragic," she said.
"He had a whole exciting life ahead of him." She Leighton understood Patterson Gardner he had been due to go overseas head abroad today, possibly to Sydney, for university studies.
"He was just such a beautiful boy who everybody loved," she said.
"He lived life to the full." He Patterson Gardner was a school house leader and a keen skier, she said.
"We couldn't speak more highly of him as a young man." His friends in the boarding hostel were "devastated by the news" and were being supported by staff. In a statement, Over The Top Helicopters said the company it was "deeply saddened" by the deaths.
"We would like to express our deepest condolences to friends and families of both members on board and are devastated by the loss of such valued and highly regarded team members," the company said.
"We would like to sincerely thank the emergency services for their incredible effort and assistance."
'TRUE GENTLEMAN' OF AVIATION
Pilot Combe and his wife Steph, a pilates intructor, moved to Wanaka in 2003 after Combe, a former British Royal Marine with the 847 Naval Air Squadron, completed his tour of duty in Iraq and retired from military service.
They threw themselves and their sons Alexander and Josef into the great outdoors, tramping together, taking part in rogaines and orienteering events and supporting Wanaka mountain runner Mal Law's High50 Challenge.
They were also members of Wanaka's New Life Church.
New Life Church minister Judy Ward said the Combe family was a valued member of its community.
"We are really shocked and saddened. He was such a caring, compassionate person and he will be sadly missed," Ward said.
Steph Combe said it was too soon to talk to the media but later thanked others on Facebook for "their kind words, thoughts and support".
"It means the world to us right now. An incredibly hard time for us.
"It's incredibly tough."
Steph Combe worked as a senior executive for a management consulting firm before the couple decided to move with their newborn son to New Zealand in September 2003.
Combe began working as a pilot for commercial helicopter companies, most recently Over The Top in Queenstown, while his wife established her pilates business in Wanaka.
Combe was born in South Africa, raised in Britain, and obtained a technology degree at university in Plymouth.
Before joining the British Royal Marines, he worked for the Christian organisation Food For The Hungry in Rwanda, during that country's civil war.
During his eight year military career he served in a logistics role in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Basra.
Friend Duncan Faulkner said Combe was a "true and honest gentleman of aviation". "The kind of chap I would want my daughters to marry," he said.
"He had incredible faith, and would literally go to the end of the earth to help a mate or complete stranger."
- The Press