Coroner questions plane groundings
Grounding all tandem skydiving planes until a safe method of restraining passengers onboard is found has been raised at the fatal Fox Glacier plane crash inquest.
Four tandem skydive masters, four overseas tourists and the Queenstown pilot were killed when a Skydive New Zealand plane crashed soon after takeoff at the south Westland township’s airstrip on September 4, 2010.
The week-long inquest in Greymouth into the nine deaths finished this afternoon but it would be several months before Christchurch coroner Richard McElrea’s findings were released.
Civil Aviation Authority’s general manager of general aviation, John Lanham, told the court today CAA wanted to introduce compulsory restraints for skydivers to avoid them sliding backwards in the plane.
Earlier, some expert witnesses said the skydivers would have slid backwards in the stricken plane after it took-off at an unusually steep pitch, pushing its centre of gravity rearward and contributing to the crash.
Lanham said the skydiving industry opposed using restraints because of fears they were potentially dangerous, such as causing a parachute to open inside the plane.
However, the coroner said the crash highlighted dangers of unrestrained persons in these situations.
"Is it an option to ground all tandem parachuting operations until the question of appropriate restraint of those on board?’’
Lanham said it was an option but the CAA had no intention at present to do that.
The inquest had an emotional ending as McElrea read out all nine names in alphabetical order, saying for each their cause of death was blunt force trauma when the plane crashed.
Many family members of the victims wept in the gallery and the coroner’s voice wavered with emotion as he read the long list.
Outside the court, some families expressed relief their loved ones were killed on impact before the plane erupted in a fireball.
Pamela Bennett, mother of dive master Adam Bennett, said she had hoped her son and the others hadn’t had to face the additional terror of fire after the crash so was relieved with his findings.
She said listening to the coroner read out her son’s cause of death was the hardest part of the week-long inquest.
"I’m fairly wrung out about the whole inquest.’’
Some families spoke of wanting to take civil action against the parties involved, including the CAA, she said.
"It is not our intention but if that is what the majority of families want, then we might join it,’’ Bennett said.
She was pleased aviation rules and regulations had been toughened since the crash.
Some families questioned findings in reports by Transport Accident Investigation Commission and independent aviation expert Barry Payne, particularly their claims the plane was overweight and unbalanced.
Skydiver director Rod Miller’s son, Jake, said many expert witnesses disputed their claims at the inquest.
"After this week of the inquest, at least now we can say confidently it wasn’t weight and balance,’’ he said.
Scott McDonald, dive master Chris McDonald’s son, agreed, saying experts with much experience in Walter Fletcher planes and skydiving had told the inquest that weight and balance were not to blame.
Miller’s widow, Robyn Jacobs, said the inquest had given the family "some sense of vindication’’ for his and the company’s reputation.
"I’m just tired and relieved it’s all over.’’
It had been a huge responsibility to become the caretaker of his business after his death, she said.
The company was sold on the crash’s first anniversary.
She and McDonald’s ex-wife, Sandra Oddie, said they were disappointed the coroner ended the inquest by saying load shift forces were "an essential element’’ in the crash.
They said that was hotly disputed by many experts during the inquest.
Karen Bourke, the mother of Australian tourist Glenn Bourke, was unimpressed with the CAA "patting itself on the back’’ by saying it was leading the world in having the first adventure aviation rule.
However, she believed the new rule was a good move and hoped it would improve safety for tourists eager to try skydiving.
"It doesn’t change a lot for me. We don’t have Glenn.’’
During the week, she was shown a photograph taken of one of the other victims just before the doomed flight, which showed her son in the background in his skydiving suit, smiling and with his thumbs up.
"It’s nice to see him looking so happy.’’
His camera was unable to be retrieved from the wreckage but videos of him bungy jumping and white water rafting were sent home with his backpack after his death.
"He was having a ball in New Zealand.’’
Those killed included Skydive New Zealand 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.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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