15 Nov 2021

Inquest into 2015 helicopter crash which killed seven people begins today

7:03 am on 15 November 2021

A coroner's inquest into one of the country's worst helicopter crashes in recent times begins in Christchurch today.

High resolution image of the wreckage of a helicopter on the Fox Glacier in 2015.

High resolution image of the wreckage of a helicopter on the Fox Glacier in 2015. Photo: Supplied / Transport Accident Investigation Commission

Queenstown pilot Mitch Gameren, 28, and six tourists were killed when the Alpine Adventures' helicopter he was flying crashed during a scenic flight over the Westland Tai Poutini National Park in November 2015.

Australians Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29, and British tourists Andrew Virco, 50, Katharine Walker, 51, Nigel Edwin Charlton, 66, and Cynthia Charlton, 70, were killed when the helicopter plunged into a deep crevasse.

Investigations found a slew of failings by both the operator and the country's aviation watchdog in the lead up to the crash.

Family members of some of the victims are expected to give evidence at the inquest, with people appearing in person and via audio-visual link.

Mitch Gameren

Pilot Mitch Gameren and six passengers died in the crash Photo: Supplied / Facebook

Coroner Marcus Elliott is presiding over the inquest at Christchurch District Court, which is set down to this Friday.

A Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report released in 2019 highlighted several failings, but gave no definitive cause of the crash.

Gameren had safely landed the AS350 Squirrel helicopter at a designated spot known as The Chancellor on the morning of 21 November, 2015.

He was flying back to base when the helicopter crashed just before 11am. No mayday call was received.

After the crash, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) suspended Alpine Adventures' managing director and owner James Patrick Scott's Air Operating Certificate (AOC), grounding his 15-strong helicopter fleet.

In 2016, the CAA charged Scott and quality assurance manager Barry Waterland's company Aviation Manual Development Ltd under the Health and Safety in Employment Act legislation.

The pair pleaded guilty and in May 2019 Scott was fined $64,000.

Scott had already paid $125,000 as a voluntary reparations payment to each family who lost members in the crash - a total of $875,000.

Waterland's company was found to have no assets and avoided a fine due to its inability to pay.

That same month, New Zealand's aviation watchdog admitted its inspectors were too soft on scenic flight operators by not verifying their claims, which were sometimes misleading.

The Civil Aviation Authority said its inspectors initially concluded the company was safe to continue flying, but on further investigation found the operator had been misleading them about safety-related matters.

"Our oversight of [the operator] should have been better," then chair Nigel Gould said at the time.

"If it was we would have placed more pressure on the operator to lift their safety performance."

A TAIC report published in 2019 noted a slew of failings by the operator and CAA in the lead up to the tragedy.

Though it did not pinpoint a definitive cause of the crash, the report found:

  • The helicopter crashed at high speed, with no mechanical issue identified
  • The helicopter's maximum permitted weight was "almost certainly exceeded"
  • The tail rotor servo had exceeded the maximum flight hours, although that was unlikely to have been a contributory factor
  • The weather conditions on the day were unstable and unsuitable for conducting a scenic flight. Conditions were very likely below the minimum criteria allowed
  • It is very likely that when the helicopter took off from Chancellor Shelf and descended down the valley the pilot's perception of the helicopter's height above the terrain (snow and ice) was affected by one or more of the following: cloud, precipitation, flat light conditions, condensation on the windscreen
  • The pilot had not been properly trained and did not have the appropriate level of experience
  • The operator's training system was ill-defined and did not comply fully with the Civil Aviation Rules
  • The operator's training system did not have sufficient oversight by the designated senior persons
  • The CAA had identified significant and repetitive non-compliance issues with the operator that warranted intervention long before this accident occurred

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