14 Jun 2021

Helicopter design to blame for crash, coronial inquest told

6:56 pm on 14 June 2021

A helicopter crash that killed two men has been called completely avoidable during a coronial inquest in Queenstown District Court.

A Robinson R44 of the kind Stephen Combe and James Patterson-Gardner died in near Lochy River last year.

A Robinson R44 of the kind Stephen Combe and James Patterson-Gardner died in near Lochy River last year. Photo: Supplied / TAIC

Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, 42, and James Louis Patterson-Gardner, 18, were killed when the helicopter they were flying crashed in remote bush in the Lochy River Basin near Queenstown on 19 February 2015.

A 2016 Transport Accident Investigation Commission report concluded that the helicopter broke apart in mid-air due to the rotor blades striking the cabin.

Today's inquest was overseen by Coroner AM Cunninghame with the first of 13 witnesses giving their evidence after the morning was spent discussing suppression orders and family tributes.

James Patterson-Gardner was the son of aviation identity Louisa Patterson who owns Over the Top helicopter company in Queenstown.

It's the company Stephen Combe worked for and the one that operated the helicopter.

Louisa Patterson's counsel, Garth Gallaway, told the inquest that all helicopters could experience mast bumping events

"But it was, however, completely avoidable. Not because of some error being made by Steve or by James, but because had they been flying in different type of helicopter, they would still be here today," Gallaway said.

"It's well known, your honour, that Robinson helicopters are vulnerable to mast bumping events which have catastrophic consequences.

"I understand that all helicopters can experience mast bumping events but, due to its unique design, when it happens with a Robinson helicopter, the results are catastrophic."

The unique design he referred to was the rotor head.

"A perfect day for flying, a very experienced training pilot and an eminently sensible student mature beyond his years," Galloway said.

Yet the helicopter fell apart in mid-air with the rotor blade slicing through the canopy, he said.

"It's unimaginable."

He noted numerous similar events that had occurred in Robinson helicopters and said pilots had to undergo special training to fly one.

"Steve and James should still be with us. That is the reality."

Gallaway said Robinson Helicopters were invited to take part in the inquest, but declined.

"That, in my submission, is an indictment on the organisation and speaks for itself."

Over the Top safety officer and senior pilot Brad Collier prepared a Squirrel helicopter on the day when the pair could not be reached by radio, text or control tower.

In his statement, he recalled light wind and fair skies as he flew

"It was a very good day for flying."

When asked by Galloway why he had not flown a Robinson since before the crash, Collier said he did not trust the aircraft.

"I don't think they're suitable for flight."

Galloway continued his line of questioning, asking Collier's thoughts on the common view from supporters that there was nothing wrong with the Robinson, it was how you flew them.

"My view is that there's no other helicopter that seems to react in the way that the Robinsons react so I think there's more to it than blaming the pilot for the issues that have been ongoing with Robinson helicopters."

The first witness, Senior Constable Julian Cahill, described how completely the helicopter had broken apart.

Cahill told the inquest that the wreckage was widely strewn through the bush.

"We located a lot of wreckage amongst the trees around the main crash site and then the majority of wreckage was downhill so that's towards the river," Cahill said.

"This included perspex, instruments from the instrument panel, shoes, sunglasses and other parts of the helicopter."

Over the Top chief financial officer and safety manager Wayne Matheson described Combe as highly skilled and an excellent teacher.

The coronial inquest is scheduled for the next two weeks at the Queenstown District Court.