Pilot 'tried to pull out' before crash
David Baldwin, an aviation doctor based at Bulls Medical Centre who runs a Flying Doctor Service, has told the inquest into the Fox Glacier plane disaster that the pilot appeared to pull the plane out of its dive before it crashed.
An experienced pilot, he had flown to Fox Glacier airstrip to do medical checks on four pilots on September 4, 2010, the day of the crash.
An inquest into the September 4, 2010, crash in Fox Glacier started in Greymouth yesterday and can be watched live online.
The accident happened less than nine hours after Christchurch's magnitude-7.1 earthquake, which overshadowed the crash at the time.
Those killed included Skydive New Zealand director and tandem dive master Rod Miller, 55, of Greymouth; pilot Chaminda Senadhira, 33, of Queenstown; and dive masters Adam Bennett, 47, from Australia but living in Motueka, Michael Suter, 32, of New Plymouth, and Christopher McDonald, 62, of Mapua.
The tourists who died were Patrick Byrne, 26, of Ireland; Glenn Bourke, 18, of Australia; Annika Kirsten, 23, of Germany; and Brad Coker, 24, of England.
A video taken from a camera mounted on the rear of his plane was played in court, which showed him landing at Fox Glacier about an hour before the fatal crash.
It also showed Skydive New Zealand director Rod Miller, who died in the crash, coming out to speak to him.
Baldwin said he talked with the pilot and all four tandem masters before their doomed flight.
''They were all their normal selves and functioning well.''
He was in a room at the airstrip doing a medical check on a pilot when they heard the plane take off and someone yell ''Oi''.
They both looked out the window to see it shortly after take off flying nearly vertical upwards, before it pitched left and plummeted vertically down then leveled out for about four or five seconds.
It appeared the pilot had managed to pull out of the dive and someone was yelling ''Come on, come on'' as if to will the plane to fly, Baldwin said.
He believed it was a topdressing prank or ''hijinks'' and something skydivers paid extra to experience.
''I didn't feel it was an aircraft out of control.''
But the right wing pulled up and the plane disappeared, before he heard ''a horrible crump'' noise and saw an explosion.
He and the pilot he had been examining rushed to the scene after calling emergency services and grabbing a fire extinguisher.
Baldwin checked around the fireball, hoping someone had been thrown clear but was unable to see any bodies at all.
TAIC investigators failed to interview him about the crash, which concerned him so he contacted them about it but was told they were satisfied with his police statement given a few days after the crash.
''I believe I would have been a big help.''
He was critical of TAIC's report, which was released in May, and pointed out three sections of concern, including weather, the plane's flight path and timing of the fire brigade's arrival.
The report stated the weather was fine with no significant cloud, which contradicted his recollection and the video also showed it was cloudy.
It said the plane was near vertical when it struck the ground, which was different to what he saw.
He said it took nearly half an hour for the fire brigade to arrive, not a few minutes like the report claimed.
A flight instructor from Skydive Abel Tasman, Stephen Gorrie, has begun giving evidence this afternoon, telling the court he rated the plane's pilot, Chaminda Senadhira, about four months before the crash and found he handled the plane well.
Oliver Mason, who had been in Fox Glacier for about a week and was at the hangar when the accident happened, said the plane took off "quite quickly" and about 30 feet earlier than it should have.
Mason recalled watching the plane climb and turn, and thinking it was normal. However, he then saw it drop and start losing altitude.
"We could tell it was in trouble."
Mason said someone voiced out loud that "something's not right", while another person nearby was "willing the plane to fly" by saying "come on".
"I remember the sound it made as it dropped ... It was like a kamikaze pilot."
One witness grabbed one of the skydiver's girlfriends and turned her away so she would not see the plane go down, he said.
As the plane hit the ground there was a "big explosion".
A few of the witnesses grabbed a a fire extinguisher from the hangar and raced over to the nearby farm where the plane had crashed.
Despite the explosion, they managed to get close to the wreckage but could not find any survivors.
"At that point I remember other people coming over and milling around and some people were hugging or consoling each other. I think I was in shock."
AIRCRAFT 'NOT LOADED PROPERLY'
Aviation expert Barry Payne, who wrote a report on the crash, told the inquest that after taking into account several probabilities, the centre of gravity had to be rear of the rearward limit.
By having the centre of gravity further back, the safety parameters ''become greatly reduced'', he said.
''In my opinion, had the aircraft been loaded in its centre of gravity range and the right weight, this accident wouldn't have occurred.''
Payne said accidents were never usually the result of a single event, but a chain of errors lining up.
In this accident, the centre of gravity, an inadequate plane manual and Queenstown-based pilot Chaminda Senadhira's failure to adjust properly, or trim, part of the tail, known as the stabilator, all lined up like ''holes in cheese''.
Payne said if the trim was not used correctly, it placed strong control forces on the aircraft.
''It can get to the point where you need both hands to overcome that control force, in which case it makes winding that trim handle an onerous task.''
Payne questioned how methodical the pilot's pre-flight checklist was.
RELATIVES TELL OF THEIR DEVASTATION
Family members of many of the dead addressed the court, some criticising New Zealand's aviation industry and regulations for failing to ensure the safety of their loved ones.
A letter by the German backpacker's parents, Susanne and Werner Schmidt-Kirsten, was read to the court and expressed their agony at losing their only child.
They said their "beautiful and talented daughter" was burnt to death when the plane exploded into a fireball.
They 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 German home town.
They blamed the Civil Aviation Authority for failing to adequately supervise the industry and Skydive New Zealand for acting negligently.
Wellington Crown solicitor Grant Burston, who is assisting the coroner for the inquest, read a letter by Coker's parents, who called the crash preventable.
They noted the Government had introduced extra controls on skydiving as a result of the crash.
"There have been without doubt major failings by the Civil Aviation Authority and there were major failings by the aircraft operators."
They said the plane 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.
Adam Bennett's mother, Pamela, told the inquest it was hard for her family to express their grief over their loss.
An adventurous man, Bennett was a base jumper as well as a skydiver and mountaineer. "He always said skydiving and base jumping were safe; extreme but safe."
Aviation expert Barry Payne, who wrote a report on the crash, told the inquest the plane's manual was inadequate for its use in skydiving, particularly in working out its centre of gravity.
Safety-critical information, such as the weight and balance data, should have been corrected in the manual when CAA certified it for skydiving.
A Transport Accident Investigation Commission report in May highlighted similar concerns.
Miller's two sons called for people to hold judgment until the inquest was complete.
"My father was totally safety conscious in everything he did," Flynn Miller said. "He would have been devastated with the disaster and the loss of so many lives. We miss him very much and wish history could rewrite itself."