Fatal flight made 'to save on hotel costs'
TRACY WATKINS AND ADAM ROBERTS
A culture of cost-cutting in the defence force has been slammed after a leaked investigation reportedly revealed that three airmen killed in an Anzac Day crash made the flight in darkness partly to save on hotel costs.
Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway said it made a lie of the Government's claim its drive to carve hundreds of millions of dollars out of the defence force budget would not impact on safety or capability.
The leaked report, obtained by the NZ Herald, also reportedly shows the crew of the April 25, 2010, flight were inadequately trained for using night-vision goggles.
It cited training problems with instrument flying and night-vision goggles and found there were no instructor manuals or guides because of resourcing issues.
Their Air Force Iroquois helicopter took off from Manawatu early on Anzac Day and crashed 36 minutes into the flight, killing three men and seriously injuring another.
Corporal Ben Carson, 25, of Christchurch, was killed in the crash, along with Flight Lieutenant Hayden Madsen, 33, and Flying Officer Dan Gregory, 28.
Survivor Sergeant Stevin Creeggan, 37, of Christchurch, is trying to prosecute the Defence Force.
A military court of inquiry partially blamed sub-standard protocols and a culture of "rule breaking" among 3 Squadron for the crash.
It said their night-vision goggles were rendered useless by a lack of moonlight, and they were not properly prepared to fly using only their instruments.
Lees-Galloway said the Air Force had repeatedly refused to release the internal accident analysis report, insisting that it was used to inform a subsequent court of inquiry so it would not be appropriate to do so.
He believed even the families of the crash victims had not seen it.
"There seems to be a cloak of secrecy around this."
The report apparently cites "the need to minimise accommodation costs incurred by 3 Squadron due to pressure on the accommodation budget was recognised and contributed to the ... decision (not to stay overnight in Wellington)".
The court of inquiry also referred to accommodation costs. It stated three factors as being behind the decision not to fly to Wellington the night before.
They were: noise abatement regulations at Wellington Airport which prevented aircraft movements before 6am, cost of overnight accommodation in Wellington and that the task could be conducted from Ohakea within crew duty limits.
No-one from the Defence Force was available to comment this morning.
Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said a court of inquiry had weighed up the evidence and there had been no suggestion that cost-cutting was to blame. The Air Force budget had not been cut under National and any cuts had occurred under Labour, when it axed the Air Force strike wing.
He accused Lees-Galloway of "a cheap political beat up".
"In air crashes, there are multiple factors which contribute to them and the court of inquiry was the expert body ... to sift through all the evidence.
"There were multiple factors in this crash and they took a carefully balanced view after examining all the evidence."
Two inquiries are under way into the crash, into the Air Force response to safety recommendations, and the former Department of Labour's failure to carry out a workplace safety investigation.
Lees-Galloway said it was an indictment on the Government and minister of defence.
"That says a lot about the culture that has been created in the defence force around cost-cutting. Obviously, personnel feel under so much pressure to cut even the most minimal costs that it is starting to impact on decisions around safety."
He understood the resourcing issues to do with night-vision goggles included a decision not to keep training manuals up to date to save money.
The Government launched a cost-cutting review of the military just weeks before the Anzac Day crash.
Led by former Telecom chief executive Roderick Deane, it identified savings of $300 million a year, criticised the amount military personnel were paid, saying it was too much, and urged the civilianisation of up to 2000 jobs.
The Government adopted most recommendations.
Lees-Galloway said that made the minister responsible.
"It's his Government's policy that has created the culture in the defence force that is leading people to make these kinds of decisions; that is something the minister is clearly responsible for. It indicates to me their promises that making the defence force do more for less wouldn't impact safety and wouldn't impact capability haven't been correct. And I think it's time for the Government to review its policy."
Carson's father, Andrew, said he had heard cost-saving was one of the reasons for the morning flight but was shocked by the small size of the saving.
''It was totally unnecessary. They don't care about spending $9 million sending people backwards and forwards to France to train in helicopters.''
The section of the report released was a way of shifting blame to the Government, he said.
The lack of training in night-vision flying, flying at a low level and flying in formation was shocking but typical of the culture of risk-taking in the organisation at the time, he said.
''There's rules for some people and there's rules for the Air Force.''
He believed the defence minister should resign.
The results of a review of how the families of the men killed in the crash were treated are due to be released soon.
Carson said despite him pleading with the Air Force not to ruin another Christmas, they had been told it would be released in the next month.
''They will send it out when the news media will be on holiday and the politicians are on holiday.''
Coleman confirmed it would be released early next month.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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