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Key defends adventure tourism after crash report

Published: 5:49AM Wednesday May 09, 2012 Source: ONE News / Fairfax

Adventure tourism in New Zealand is safe, John Key insists, despite a critical report into a fatal plane crash which killed nine people.

The Skydive New Zealand plane crashed soon after takeoff from Fox Glacier airstrip on September 4, 2010, killing four tourists, four skydive masters and a Queenstown pilot.

A Transport Accident Investigations Commission (TAIC) report into the crash today repeated an earlier finding that the plane was out of balance and modifications made to it were poorly managed.

Among the victims was 24-year-old tourist Brad Coker from England, whose family has written to Key, the minister for tourism, saying the report made for "disturbing reading".

"The report details a shocking catalogue of entirely preventable negligence on the part of those who operated the aircraft," Brad's father Chris Coker said.  

"Our son was killed in a completely avoidable and needless fatal accident, which could have been avoided by a system of rigorous regulation and monitoring."

He said the incident bears a similarity to others that have happened in New Zealand and he is calling on Key to take urgent action to create proper regulations for the adventure tourism industry.

"Until action is taken to ensure the regulation, inspection and control of adventure sport, particularly involving aircraft, is radically tightened, I feel it my duty to advise people thinking of visiting New Zealand for adventure sport to think twice."

However, Key said Coker's letter contained a number of inaccuracies and new regulations have been put in place since the crash.

"My message is that it is safe," Key said.

"I mean at the end of the day there's always some risk with adventure tourism, that's true of every country in the world, ultimately if you throw yourself out of a plane or off a bridge threre's an element of risk there, but our operators are good operators."

Booming industry

The TAIC report said the CAA allowed parachuting operators to flourish, despite knowing the industry was booming with 100,000 tandem jumps annually at the time of the accident, and identifying the need for tighter regulations.

CAA Director of Civil Aviation Graeme Harris said the report provided lessons for all pilots, and for the CAA.

TAIC found that the pilot had wrongly used weight and balance calculations for another Fletcher aircraft, he said.

It also said pilots must do weight and balance calculations for every individual aircraft, reminding pilots-in-command they were responsible for aircraft weight and balance, whether flying an airliner, private two-seater or microlight, he said.

"This is basic airmanship, taught to every student pilot. It is very sad that a critical element of pre-flight planning, which should be second nature to any pilot, appears to have been done so poorly. This is an accident that no pilot should ever forget."

Since the accident the CAA had made significant changes. Soon after, it limited the number of skydivers who could be carried in Fletcher aircraft to six, and required that these passengers be individually weighed to ensure calculations were accurate.

Just before the accident, the CAA had also taken steps to more tightly control the kinds of modifications that could be made to an aircraft without direct CAA inspection.

Harris said although the pilot did not meet a basic element of good airmanship, the CAA at that time did not regulate the parachuting sector closely enough.

"In the intervening year and a half the regulatory landscape controlling these operations has been transformed. A great deal of work has been done to improve safety in this sector, and I am certain that it will."

Plane out of balance

The September crash was blamed on the plane being out of balance, making the nose "pitch up".

The pilot was unable to regain control and the plane continued to pitch up, then rolled left before striking the ground nearly vertically.

The report said the aircraft had been modified from an agriculture plane into a parachute-drop plane three months before the accident, and the owner had not completed any weight and balance calculations before it entered service.

As a result, the plane was being flown outside its loading limits every time it carried a full load of eight parachutists.

TAIC said the owner and the pilots did not comply with "civil aviation rules and did not follow good, sound aviation practice" by failing to conduct weight and balance checks.

They also used the incorrect amount of fuel reserves, removed the flight manual from the plane, and did not draft their own standard operating procedures before using the plane.

TAIC made six recommendations to the director of Civil Aviation - three relating to the operation of parachute-drop aircraft, two relating to the process for converting aircraft for another purpose and one relating to seat restraints.

Two of the tandem masters had smoked cannabis, though TAIC said it did not contribute to the crash as they were not crew members of the plane.

The commission said an alcohol and drug testing regime needed to be implemented for people performing activities critical to flight safety.

The crash claimed the lives of Skydive New Zealand director Rod Miller, 55, of Greymouth, pilot Chaminda Senadhira, 33, of Queenstown, dive masters Adam Bennett, 47, from Australia but living in Motueka, Michael Suter, 32, from New Plymouth and Christopher McDonald, 62, of Mapua.

The four tourists, who had been touring the West Coast on a Kiwi Experience bus trip, were Patrick Byrne, 26, of Ireland, Glenn Bourke, 18, of Australia, Annita Kirsten, 23, of Germany, and Brad Coker, 24, of England.