Skydiving boss 'totally safety conscious'

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 18:46 13/08/2012
fox glacier air crash
AMY GLASS/The Press

The charred remains of the downed aircraft near the Fox Glacier airstrip following the crash.

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Skydive New Zealand director Rod Miller, one of nine people killed in a skydiving accident, was "totally safety conscious", his eldest son says.

Coroner Richard McElrea's inquest into the crash of a skydiving plane near Fox Glacier on September 4, 2010, opened in Greymouth today.

Those killed were Miller, 55, a tandem dive master from Greymouth, pilot Chaminda Senadhira, 33, from Queenstown, and dive masters Adam Bennett, 47, from Australia but living in Motueka, Michael Suter, 32, from New Plymouth, and Christopher McDonald, 62, from Mapua, and tourists Patrick Byrne, 26, of Ireland, Glenn Bourke, 18, of Australia, Annita Kirsten, 23, of Germany, and Brad Coker, 24, of England.

A clearly-emotional Flynn Miller told the inquest skydiving had been part of his father's life for more than 30 years, doing 14,000 successful skydives with most being tandems.

He loved skydiving at Fox Glacier, which was renowned as the second most spectacular skydiving site after Mt Everest, he said.

Rod Miller and John Kerr had started Skydive New Zealand 12 years earlier, Flynn said.

"My father was totally safety conscious in everything he did.

"He would have been devastated with the disaster and the loss of so many lives.

"We miss him very much and wish history could re-write itself."

Flynn said he was concerned about the opinions adopted by some parties following the accident and investigations.

However, he hoped affected by the tragedy could gain some sort of clarification and closure.

His younger brother, Jake, gave a personal statement outside court, disputing the Transport Accident Investigation Commission report’s accuracy and reasoning.

He doubted the plane crashed due to weight and balance problems, as its report claimed.

"TAIC believe that the aircraft crashed as it was excessively out of balance and over weight, however, this is an unreasonable assumption considering the tens of thousands of similar skydive loads that have been done in Fletcher aircrafts all over the world."

He said the report was based around the "easy options" and alleged TAIC’s investigation was inadequate.

"I believe that the general public have been exposed to a false report and one that is significantly incorrect. I look forward to seeing concrete evidence become known in future months that will alert the general public to TAIC's inferior and incorrect report.

"I can say with confidence, however, that I do believe the factual results of the accident will become known in due course, and that these results will point in a very different direction to TAIC’s reasoning.’’

SKYDIVING CONTROLS QUESTIONED

New Zealand Parachute Industry Association chief executive Keith Gallaher was questioned this afternoon about the organisation's controls over skydiving operators.

He said the best way it could regulate skydiving was to issue members certificates to ensure they met its standards.

It had no concerns with Sky Dive New Zealand.

He said the centre-of-balance problems raised by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission's report in May were not well understood by pilots before the crash.

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Gallaher raised concerns about the Civil Aviation Authority introducing compulsory restraints for skydiving, saying these were potentially dangerous and were designed as crash restraints to stop people moving forward in a crash.

Instead, he believed load restraints rather than crash restraints would be more effective in stopping movement in the plane by skydiving, addressing the potential centre of balance problem.

Aviation expert Barry Payne, who wrote a report on the crash, told the inquest this afternoon the plane’s aircraft manual was inadequate for a pilot's use in skydiving flights, particularly in working out the plane's centre of gravity.

He described the aircraft's earlier conversion from a topdressing plane into a skydiving plane, saying the aircraft manual was more suitable for its former use.

Safety critical information, such as the weight and balance data, should have been corrected in its manual when the CAA certified it for skydiving after the conversion.

TAIC’s report in May highlighted similar concerns.

CRASH 'INEVITABLE CERTAINTY'

A letter read at the coroner's inquest claimed the tragedy was an "inevitable certainty".

Wellington crown solicitor Grant Burston, who is assisting the coroner for the inquest, read the letter by victim Bradley Coker's parents.

They noted the Government had introduced extra controls on skydiving as a result of the crash.

"However, lack of regulation is not the cause of the crash," they said in the letter.

"There have been without doubt major failings by the Civil Aviation Authority and there were major failings by the aircraft operators."

It had been flown out of balance and overloaded 75 times, which meant such an accident was an "inevitable certainty".

They called for law changes to ensure "proper responsibility" to those who were involved, saying there was "no accountability in New Zealand".

Bradley and his girlfriend, Hayley, had been travelling the world together and their engagement was expected on their return to England.

Another letter read at the inquest, from victim Annika Kirsten's parents, Susanne and Werner, said their daughter was due to return home on October 3, but instead her ashes arrived in an urn on September 18.

Her parents had encouraged her to travel to New Zealand, thinking it was a safe country.

Since the crash, they had suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"Together, with our daughter, we lost our future, our sense of life and our hope."

They blamed the CAA for failing to adequately supervise the industry and Skydive New Zealand for acting negligently.

"In the name of our daughter, we ask the responsible people, who are still alive to stand up to their responsibility and to tell the truth about their negligence in the inquest."

Annika's camera was retrieved from the wreckage and the photos were developed, the last one of her in a skyjumping suit just before the jump.

Her parents learnt of the crash when reading a newspaper that had a small article about the Canterbury earthquake and briefly mentioned a plane crash had killed nine people, including someone from their home town in Germany.

The crash occurred less than nine hours after Christchurch's magnitude-7.1 quake, which overshadowed the tragedy at the time.

Pamela Bennett, the mother of victim Adam Bennett, today told the inquest it was hard for her family to express their grief over their loss.

"They are feelings of shock, loss and ultimately the realisation that we will not see him again."

An adventurous soul, Bennett was a base jumper as well as a skydiver and mountaineer.

"He always said skydiving and base jumping were safe, extreme but safe."

When he died, many said he was doing what he loved, she said.

"He was but we wish it could have been different.

"Fly free forever, soar above the clouds, you are loved, you are missed," she said, weeping.

INQUEST OPENS TWO YEARS AFTER CRASH

McElrea said the inquest, nearly two years after the crash, had been delayed for other ''investigative processes'' and it would take several months for written findings to be released.

The coroner acknowledged the presence of many family members filling the gallery at the Greymouth District Court as well as those overseas who could watch the proceedings via live streaming on the Justice Ministry website.

It was the first time the case would be considered in the public arena and central to the inquest was the cause of the crash and skydiving regulations or rules.

The coroner said various threads that culminated in ''this calamitous event'' would be examined at the inquest.

''Inevitably, much of the evidence at the hearing will seem to be very distant from the fact that a pilot, four tandem masters and four young adults, each visitors to this country, have died in this way.''

He said those who died in the crash were a diverse and talented group of individuals, and he expressed condolences to their family and friends.

The week-long inquest is being held in the Greymouth District Court. It can be watched on the internet via a live-streaming link on the coronial services website.

- The Press

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