Fox plane operator admits failings
Skydive New Zealand's plane operator has admitted he should have done a weight and balance measurement after its conversion for skydiving, the inquest into the fatal Fox Glacier crash has heard.
However, John Kerr, an experienced pilot and director of Glacier Skydivers Ltd, told the inquest in Greymouth today that he disagreed with claims the plane crashed because it was overweight and unbalanced.
Four tandem skydive masters, four overseas tourists and the Queenstown pilot died when the Fletcher aircraft crashed soon after takeoff from the South Westland township's airstrip in September 2010.
The inquest had heard the Transport Accident Investigation Commission and aviation expert Barry Payne blamed the crash on the plane's centre of gravity being rearward and that carrying eight skydivers was too heavy for its specifications.
Kerr, who worked as a pilot for Skydive New Zealand until last year and was the plane's certified operator, said its flight manual had been approved by the Civil Aviation Authority after its conversion from a topdressing plane two months before the crash.
He said the manual had not been properly updated about doing weight and balance checks for skydiving.
The company planned to raise that concern when the plane had its 100-hour check, which was due in 18 hours' flying time, he said.
''CAA doesn't like you modifying their flight manuals.''
Kerr said the plane's weight and balance measurement was based on information from another Fletcher aircraft.
However, the inquest was told the other plane was much lighter that the doomed aircraft.
Payne had calculated the plane was from 81 to 147 kilograms heavier than the maximum allowed in its flight manual, far more than TAIC's 17kg overweight.
Wellington Crown solicitor Grant Burston, who is assisting the coroner, said the plane had done 74 flights with four tandem skydivers so would have exceeded weight limits every time.
''If you had taken immediate action and not waited the 18 hours, you would have discovered you couldn't have flown with eight passengers,'' he said.
Kerr agreed in hindsight but said Fletcher planes had been used for 10 years to carry eight skydivers in thousands of flights without loss of control.
The pilot had flown about 40 hours in the plane.
Kerr believed it was possible the pilot had taken off with the trim in the wrong position and had corrected before the crash.
He and the pilot had forgotten to check the plane's trim's position on occasions, with the pilot aborting a flight only two weeks earlier because he had failed to set the trim for takeoff.
The company planned to get a switch fitted at the plane's 100-hour check to prevent the trim being set in the wrong position for takeoff.
In Kerr's experience, he had never seen passengers shift while the skydiving plane accelerated down the runway or took off.
However, he agreed the load might have shifted as a result of the plane's steep flight path before crashing, which made recovery of control difficult.
Kerr earlier expressed his sincere condolences to the victims' families and friends.
He became emotional when telling the inquest about Skydive New Zealand director Rod Miller, who he met in 1996 and who died in the crash.
''He was an exceptional organiser, a very hard worker and an excellent skydiver.''
Miller bought Skydive New Zealand in 1996.
Earlier today, another crash witness, Skydive New Zealand tandem master Dean Thomas, told the inquest the pilot was ''dedicated to safety''.
The company was operated in a safe manner, he said.
That day, he did not watch the plane become airborne and was walking away from it towards a hangar when he heard a noise that made him look up.
''It sounded like the revs had changed and it was revving high.''
He was immediately concerned something had gone wrong and saw the plane at about 350 feet steeply banking to the left, with its nose facing down.
As he watched, the plane levelled out, which looked like the pilot would fly out of the dive before its left wing dropped and the plane nose-dived to the ground.
He stayed consoling one of the dive master's partners and kept away from the wreckage until the bodies had been removed.
The inquest started in Greymouth on Monday.
Family members question witness
Tense questioning of an expert witness by the widow and son of Skydive New Zealand director Rod Miller was earlier heard at the inquest.
Aviation expert Barry Payne, who wrote an independent report on the September 4, 2010, crash for the coroner, continued to give evidence today at the week-long inquest.
Robyn Jacobs, Miller's widow, told Payne that skydiving planes were tightly packed and there was no chance of someone sliding around.
She highlighted his lack of experience with skydiving.
Payne told the inquest the doomed aircraft's unusually steep takeoff had ''almost certainly'' caused skydivers inside to slide backwards, which would have rendered the plane uncontrollable.
It was also probable a skydiver had slid rearward during the plane's acceleration down the runway, which could explain why the pilot took off with such an unusual ''nose-high'' attitude.
He said the plane had carpet covering the floor in the rear cabin to increase friction for passengers, but the Skydive New Zealand plane had plastic PVC covering the carpet.
He agreed something else must have caused the pilot to take off in such a steep position if the passenger load had not slipped backwards before liftoff.
One possibility was the pilot might have incorrectly set the stabilitor trim.
That might have produced a force that caused him to lose control because the plane was overloaded and unbalanced, Payne said.
A distraction from the rear of the aircraft, which diverted the pilot's attention, was another possibility for his nose-high takeoff.
Payne said the plane was overloaded and unbalanced, with its centre of gravity rearward.
''In my opinion, had the aircraft been loaded in its centre of gravity range and the right weight, this accident wouldn't have occurred,'' he said yesterday.
Jacobs raised concerns about evidence of the tandem masters' weights, saying her husband was much lighter than the 90 kilograms suggested.
Garth Gallaway, lawyer for Kerr, had earlier highlighted the lack of information about the skydivers' weights because of claims the plane was overloaded.
Coroner Richard McElrea called for medical information to be provided, after the inquest finished, about the likely weights of each occupant.
He suppressed some of Jacobs and Miller's questions.
Before the crash, skydivers' weights were calculated at 70kg, but since then, the Civil Aviation Authority ordered companies to weigh every skydiver for weight and balance calculations.
Miller's son, Flynn, questioned Payne about his claims that Skydive New Zealand was focused on skydiving rather than aircraft safety.
Payne said the skydiving industry's main focus was on skydivers coming down in a parachute rather than the plane ride.
''I think this accident, in my opinion, demonstrated unfortunately that part of the activity was left lacking,'' he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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