Pilots slam CAA over red-flagged inspector who investigated fatal helicopter crash
A Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) inspector who overstated his CV had his performance in investigating one of the country's worst fatal helicopter crashes red-flagged in internal emails.
As a flight operations inspector Paul Mitchell Jones conducted safety checks and inquiries all over the country, including an investigation into the 2015 Fox Glacier crash that killed seven people.
A Stuff inquiry has found Jones was a controversial figure within the aviation industry and attracted serious concerns about his work from superiors.
Stuff recently reported Jones had claimed on his CV that he had two advanced fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft qualifications, Airline Transport Pilot Licences (ATPLs), when he had neither.
The CAA has refused to order an inquiry into his work and has said it was happy with his performance despite concern expressed in its own emails obtained by Stuff.
One of Jones' biggest jobs was to investigate the company involved in the glacier crash, on which he and two others came up with eight findings – including about training and record keeping.
The Eurocopter AS350 Ecureuil, known as the Squirrel, belonged to Alpine Adventures, which now says some of Jones' findings were "completely wrong".
The November 2015 crash killed local 28-year-old pilot Mitch Gameren and four British and two Australian tourists.
Seven months after the crash the CAA suspended the Air Operating Certificate (AOC) of Alpine Adventures' owner James Scott, forcing him to ground his fleet of 15 helicopters.
Questions were now being raised about Jones' competence to perform his duties while he was at the CAA.
A CAA email obtained by Stuff showed Jones' boss Steve Kern was concerned over breaches of CAA record-keeping protocols by Jones and others in regard to the glacier crash investigation.
The email showed that when Kern went into the CAA computer system in May 2016, much of the material he expected to find supporting the crash findings was missing or in the wrong place.
"For visits of this importance I was expecting to see some reasonable notes and evidence of what you did, who you talked to, what you found, any actions agreed etc."
The email, to Jones and the other investigators, mentioned visits to Scott's home and Fox Glacier: "Where are both of your notes from the site visit capturing the detail?"
The CAA has said management routinely checked up on information gathered from auditing and surveillance activities.
"Staff are expected to enter surveillance information into our database. Managers monitor this and follow up with staff or teams should information be incomplete or lacking."
The CAA would not comment specifically on Kern's email.
The General Aviation Advocacy Group of New Zealand (GAA), which represents 2000 aviation staff, slammed the CAA's "abject" handling of the Jones affair.
The GAA has written to the CAA demanding answers to a series of questions arising from Jones' employment from 2014 to early this year and drawing parallels to how an engineer would be treated.
"If a licensed engineer used fraudulent qualifications to release an aircraft to service, then all aircraft and/or components that this engineer had touched should have been subject to a rigorous investigation," the letter said.
The GAA has accused both the CAA and Minister of Transport Simon Bridges of brushing off the problem.
"It smacks of a 'trust us – we know what we are doing' attitude unbecoming of a responsible and communicative authority."
According to a flight operations inspector job description dated January 2017, the ATPL or equivalent is an essential prerequisite.
But CAA spokesman Mike Richards said the job description was a mistake and flight inspectors did not need the qualifications, which were the highest licences pilots could earn in New Zealand.
Scott said he was not surprised when he found out Jones was not qualified for the position, describing his behaviour during the investigation as "unusual".
"There was something about him that we couldn't figure out, [it] didn't seem right," he said.
"He told us he had flown here, there and everywhere. Now it makes sense. When I disputed the things he was trying to tell me, he completely dismissed them. They should never have employed him in the first place."
Stuff has spoken to half a dozen pilots who found Jones' safety audits unusual.
Owen Jones, unrelated to Paul Jones, was the quality assurance manager for Heliworx Waikato in 2015 when the inspector came to do an audit.
The manager described Jones' behaviour as aggressive and accusatory and complained to the CAA.
The CAA had to conduct another audit with a different inspector.
ICAA's Richards said Jones' behaviour could be explained and the CAA was aware of only a small number of complaints.
Jones had a difficult relationship with a small number of operators, but an effective regulator could spark tensions, he said.
In a statement, Richards mentioned Jones did not claim to have the ATPL qualifications when he started working for the CAA in 2014 and added the licences when applying for another CAA position in 2016.
"That version of his CV had added Air Transport Pilot's Licence (Aeroplane) and Air Transport Pilot's Licence (Helicopter) to the section of his CV headed 'Education and Qualifications'."
That contradicts a copy of Jones' CV cited before a court, dated 2014, which show the claimed ATPL qualifications.
Richards said the CAA would not be changing any of the decisions it had made with Alpine Adventures since Jones' glacier crash investigation.
Jones would not comment on the issue and referred all inquiries to the CAA.
The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) is investigating the cause of the helicopter crash. The TAIC uses CAA information for its inquiries. TAIC's findings may not be released until next year.