A few months before John Key became prime minister in 2008, a news report said the navy was finding it difficult to sail and the air force to fly, and the army would struggle to take part in combat. The 2007/08 Defence Force annual report, the source of that information, painted a grim picture of our military forces' staff and equipment. Appropriations for the defence forces have been lifted from around $2.5 billion in 2008/09 to $2.9b in this year's Budget. But frugality is still demanded of those in charge of military spending, as evidenced by an Air Force accident analysis report into the deaths of three airmen when an Iroquois helicopter crashed near Pukerua Bay during a pre-dawn flight on Anzac Day 2010. They had been bound for a dawn ceremony in Wellington.
The helicopter, one of three flying in formation, took off from Manawatu for a one-hour flight. The crew used night vision goggles. But the airmen were later found to have been inadequately trained for this. So why hadn't they flown down the day before? Penny-pinching, in a nutshell. The accident analysis report refers to the need to minimise accommodation costs incurred by 3 Squadron because of pressure on the accommodation budget. In other words, accommodation costs of around $600 were saved, but three lives and a chopper were lost.
The damning report draws attention to training problems with instrument flying and night vision goggles and says there were no instructor manuals or guides because of "resourcing" issues. This (we are told) was "common with most RNZAF flying units".
It gets worse. Four of the six pilots in the three helicopters did not have adequate flying qualifications for the flight and the lead pilot was not qualified to lead the formation. These problems were systemic throughout the air force to the extent that it could not "adequately and reliably ensure safe and effective military air operations". And those at the top of the command chain were aware of these problems.
Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, questioned in Parliament, took refuge in the court of inquiry's being clear about the causes of the crash. Budgetary considerations were not among them. Those considerations should concern him nevertheless, along with the other issues highlighted by investigators.