Chopper hit 'at high speed'

Last updated 05:00 24/11/2012

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The scattered debris field of a crashed Hughes 500 helicopter missing in Fiordland since 2004 suggested a high-speed explosive impact, a Wakatipu alpine cliff rescuer said yesterday.

Pilot Campbell Montgomerie, 27, of Waikato, and passenger Hannah Rose Timings, 28, of Gloucestershire, England, were on board.

An investigation into the crash is under way.

The helicopter's wreckage was discovered this week, covering a debris field spread over a cliff, a steep tiered bluff and a rocky tussock-covered apron along a valley wall in tricky terrain on the extremes of the original search sectors in 2004 and 2005.

Searchers estimated the field extended about 70 vertical metres and 100m to 200m across.

Wakatipu Alpine Cliff Rescue team member Derek Chinn was one of two men who scaled the cliff to the impact site, photographing the scene for police, then cataloguing the wider debris field.

He said the impact site appeared to be near the top of a cliff edge and debris, comprised largely of metal pieces and "aluminium confetti", was strewn down the bluff.

He was unable to say exactly what happened but suggested from the size of the debris field that the initial explosive impact was on the cab or cockpit.

Pieces of the cockpit and seats were at the top of the bluff with headsets and a destroyed cockpit recorder at the bottom of the cliffs.

"The impact involved a great deal of speed . . . it's hit, exploded with some debris at the top.

"We were not there to bring debris out; it was our job to plan out what was there and photograph human remains."

The debris field was about two-thirds up the valley from Humboldt Creek toward the saddle on the western side, near a 1340-metre section of the range.

Searchers recovered a partially intact tail boom, clam shells that formed part of the exterior engine housing, pieces of a gearbox, engine, other metal pieces and melted material.

At the impact site, debris was driven into the rock. The pilot may have been spatially disoriented flying in cloud and the helicopter was potentially in freefall, Mr Chinn said.

"A lot of it's aluminium confetti . . . there's an awful lot of water and avalanches (over the years).

"It was a very high-speed impact, apparently, with a reasonable component of down because it splashed [downwards] and outwards," he said.

Extensively damaged sections of the helicopter, barely visible from the air because of their similar colour to the scrub and rocks, were scattered across the rugged terrain.

Mr Montgomerie and Ms Timings flew from Queenstown bound for Milford on January 2, 2004, but set down near the Howden Hut on the Routeburn track in bad weather.

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After taking off from there they were not seen again. At an inquest in Te Anau in August 2004, they were declared dead.

The Hughes 500 was reportedly the only missing helicopter in New Zealand and its discovery reduces the number of missing aircraft to 17.

- The Southland Times

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