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Helicopter pilot back home after amazing escape

Published: 10:30AM Wednesday November 23, 2011 Source: ONE News

A helicopter pilot is back at home and remarkably unhurt after a terrifying crash on Auckland's waterfront.  

Greg Gribble was using the B2 Squirrel helicopter to set up the Telecom Christmas Tree this morning.

The chopper had lifted a pylon into the air and was slowly descending when the crash, shown live on a stream on, happened.

Gribble could be seen looking around as he descended in closely-confined conditions.

The main rotor appeared to then strike a cable causing a loud bang as the chopper flipped and slammed into the ground.

Eyewitnesses described hearing a "massive whack" or an "enormous pop".

"It seemed as though its rotors clipped the post that it had just put up, and then the helicopter came crashing down to the ground," eyewitness Lance Sheppard said.

As it did, the pilot was thrown like a ragdoll halfway out of the helicopter.

It missed half a dozen people standing below and the pilot's cockpit landed bottom-up.

Virtually unscathed, Gribble was quickly helped from the wreckage by other workers.

Eyewitness Jason Aarsen said: "He's very lucky. He was already halfway down. If he'd have been really high, it could have been really messy."

The helicopter was snapped in half. One of its three blades was sliced clean off.

Investigation launched

The Civil Aviation Authority is investigating exactly what went wrong.

"In terms of safety there's certain processes and procedures that need to be adhered to, and we'll be looking at whether or not this operation actually adhered to those processes," said Steven Walker of the CAA.

Safety investigators will closely analyse the TVNZ footage of the crash and question eyewitnesses who told ONE News it appeared the pilot did not have much margin for error.

"It just looked really sketchy, just didn't seem right with all the cables around," Aarsen said.

Eyewitness Ian Ross said: "You didn't have to have much sense around you to think, he's working in such a small position.  And to me it wasn't a small chopper, it was a full-size, big helicopter."

Parts of it were flung as far as the Viaduct Events Centre, a few hundred metres away, smashing bullet-like holes through windows.

One man, working beneath the helicopter, was treated for minor injuries, while firefighters sprayed foam around the wreckage.

Paul Turner of the Fire Service said there was 200 litres of jet A1 fuel on board so the foam was a precautionary measure.

'Nerve-wracking' for son

Gribble was assessed in the emergency department at Auckland Hospital and told ONE News he "is doing fine".

Auckland District Health Board confirmed about 1.30pm that he had been discharged.

Gribble's son Jaz, also a pilot, told ONE News he spoke to his father as soon as he was picked up by the ambulance and said he was "a little shaken up, a little disappointed".

And while TVNZ's footage will in all likelihood travel the world, Jaz Gribble has seen enough for now.

"I've seen it once, just quickly, but I'm not ready to watch it yet," he told ONE News..

When Greg Gribble was flying in the Viaduct, Jaz was flying the family's other helicopter.

When Jaz returned to base, he checked his phone and inevitably checked the television.

"It was pretty nerve-wracking actually, to see my father, have it come crashing down around him. So yeah, it was pretty nerve-wracking."

Helisika Helicopters is a family business running two Squirrel helicopters from the Ardmore airbase.

ONE News has filmed with Greg Gribble on several occasions before. He and his son specialise in agricultural spraying and lifting work as well as monsoon bucket firefighting.

Jaz said his father has "been around the traps a while" and has done thousands of flying hours.

Jaz Gribble says his father and the company have a good safety record but he does have concerns about the future of the company following the incident.

ONE News interviewed Greg Gribble in 2001 when he was urging the industry to improve its safety standards.

"Everyone's got to get together and try and sharpen it up a bit," he said at the time.

Helisika Helicopters' website says he has been a commercial pilot for 20 years and has many thousands of hours of flying experience.

Jaz said lifting the Christmas tree was not particularly unusual for the company, which is often involved in firefighting and spraying chemicals.

Telecom has released a statement about the crash and said it is "extremely glad the pilot and ground crew were not seriously injured, and will assist any investigations into the crash as required".

Telecom says it is committed to helping with the investigation into what happened, and it's hoped the tree will still be up by December 2.

The tree attracts over 150,000 visitors each year and is made up of 375,000 lights.

Te Wero Bridge on the Auckland waterfront has been closed to pedestrians as authorities work to determine what caused the crash.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission is deciding if it will undertake an investigation.

What the pictures show

Just how the incident happened is still under investigation.

But the TVNZ footage shows the helicopter had manouvered a metal ladder into place, and it was attached by a longline or cable.

Something then goes wrong.

A blue cable appears to have looped under the helicopter and gets clipped by the rotor blades.
The helicopter is pulled downwards. Pilot Greg Gribble wrestles for control but loses the battle. He is thrown outside the chopper at one stage.

The tail breaks off and bends around the chopper which is now on its side.

It flips and crashes down, bottom first. People on the ground run for their lives.

Grinding can be heard as the engine protests.

Eventually Gribble can be seen moving as workers rush to help him.

Then, miraculously, he gets himself out of the helicopter and limps away with some help.