Grounding tandem skydiving planes raised

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 17:59 17/08/2012
John Lanham
DEIDRE MUSSEN/Fairfax NZ
CAUSE UNKNOWN: Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) general manager of general aviation John Lanham said today the cause of the plane crash in Fox Glacier in 2010 was yet to be determined.

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The grounding of tandem skydiving aircraft until a safe method of restraining passengers is found has been raised at the 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 will be several months before Coroner Richard McElrea's findings are released.

Civil Aviation Authority general manager of general aviation John Lanham told the court today that the authority 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.

The coroner said the crash highlighted the dangers of unrestrained people in these situations.

''Is it an option to ground all tandem parachuting operations until the question of appropriate restraint of those on board?'' he asked.

Lanham said it was an option, but the CAA had no intention at present to do that.

The inquest had an emotional ending as the coroner read out all nine names in alphabetical order, saying for each that their cause of death was blunt-force trauma when the plane crashed.

Many family members in the gallery wept and the coroner's voice wavered with emotion as he read the list.

Outside the court, some families expressed relief that 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 had not faced the additional terror of fire after the crash, so she was relieved with the 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,'' she said.

Some families spoke of wanting to take civil action against the parties involved, including the CAA, she said.

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''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 the 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, said experts with 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 Miller's 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 former 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 whitewater rafting were sent home with his backpack after his death.

''He was having a ball in New Zealand,'' she said.

Some families headed to Fox Glacier after the inquest finished today.

Crash cause unknown

Lanham earlier told the inquest the crash's cause had yet to be determined.

He said it was clear from evidence by expert witnesses that weight, balance and incorrectly set trim were not factors.

The coroner questioned Lanham on his views in discounting those crash causes.

Lanham, a pilot for 51 years, including 26 years in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, said he based his decision on evidence from expert witnesses, ''and as a professional pilot, I'm inclined to agree with them''.

The inquest had heard that the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) blamed the crash on the plane being overweight and unbalanced.

It criticised the operator for failing to calculate the plane's weight and balance, which was needed to ensure the plane stayed within its centre of gravity limits.

TAIC said the plane's CAA-approved flight manual lacked adequate information for pilots to do weight and balance calculations.

Independent aviation expert Barry Payne, who did a report on the crash for the coroner, told the inquest this week that the pilot could have wrongly left the trim in the landing position, which explained its unusually steep takeoff.

As a result, skydivers would have slid rearwards, pushing the plane's centre of gravity aft, which would have caused the pilot to lose control, he said.

Lanham said the CAA had tightened aviation safety since the crash.

It had developed a flight manual supplement on weight and balance for the same type of Walter Fletcher planes, which it was about to release.

The  CAA introduced a new adventure aviation rule last November.

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.

- The Press

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