29 Jun 2020

Pilot defends abilities in inquest six years after crash

6:23 pm on 29 June 2020

The pilot of a helicopter that crashed near Wanaka - killing a man - has defended his training and abilities in a coronial inquest.

Crumpled helicopter on the snow

One person, Jerome Box, died in this heli-skiing accident near Wanaka Photo: ( Supplied / TAIC )

Auckland man Jerome Box was killed and six others injured when a heliski chopper crashed on Mount Alta near Wanaka in August 2014.

Exactly what went wrong that day is now the subject of a coronial inquest that began in Auckland District Court today.

Dave Matthews was the pilot in command that day, and had clocked nearly 4200 hours of flying over a 13-year period by the time of the crash.

He inspected the aircraft that day and ferried several heliski groups before picking up Box's group and their guide and flying them up Mt Alta.

Matthews told the court he was happy with the weather conditions and aircraft but felt a sinking feeling as he approached the landing.

"The descent I felt was unexpected. I felt like a hand had reached up from the mountain and grabbed the aircraft."

He said he immediately changed tack and began manoeuvring the Squirrel helicopter to an escape route down a valley on the mountainside.

"It was at that stage I realised the rate of descent was much more rapid than I had previously experienced in other aborted landing.

"I remember being surprised and thinking this should not be happening. I knew at that point there was a high likelihood we were going to crash."

Matthews said he focused on steering the aircraft away from obstacles and keeping it parallel with the snowy surface below.

"The next thing I remember is the impact and the feeling of snow on my face. I was disorientated after the accident but did not lose consciousness."

The helicopter crashed into the mountainside and rolled 300 metres down a snowy slope, throwing Matthews, the heliski guide and four of Box's group from the cabin.

Box, a 52-year-old father of two, was crushed and killed.

Matthews accepted the helicopter's load was too heavy because he had not added an extra 4kg of weight for each passenger, as per Civil Aviation Authority rules.

His pilot experience, training and ability were extensively criticised in an independent expert report commissioned by the Coroner.

A photo of the couple standing close

Jerome and Adelle Box. Jerome died in the 2014 Mount Alta helicopter crash Photo: ( Supplied )

Today he told the court the report - which stated he failed to act professionally on the most basic of levels - was a bitter thing to read.

A far cry from unprofessional, he described himself as a fastidious and detail-oriented pilot.

"Many of my colleagues have described me as the fun police in the past. Where I am looking for the things that are not working properly, that need addressing, and saying something about it."

Civil Aviation Authority prosecution

The coronial inquiry into Jerome Box's death has faced years of delays to make way for a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) prosecution.

Queenstown helicopter company The Helicopter Line (THL) was charged under the Health and Safety in Employment Act by CAA after the crash.

It was later fined $47,600 in the Queenstown District Court and made a voluntary payment of $165,000 to Box's family as well as $50,000 to each of the other four victims.

Coroner Johnson apologised for the delay today - addressing Box's wife Adelle, daughter Briana, son Xavier and brother Gregory each by name at the start of the hearing.

"I realise that this must be very hard for you and I'm very conscious that even though so much time has passed since Jerome's death that this inquest will be painful for you because it will renew emotions that you felt at the time."

The inquest is set down for one week but may run longer.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs