29 Oct 2015

No apology for families of Fox Glacier sky dive crash victims

7:38 pm on 29 October 2015

Families of victims who died in the Fox Glacier sky diving plane crash will not receive an apology from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) - despite admitted problems with its investigation

Tom McCready (left) and Andrew McGregor - independent air accident investigators at dig site Fox Glacier in March 2014

Tom McCready (left) and Andrew McGregor - independent air accident investigators at dig site Fox Glacier in March 2014. Photo: Peter Newport

Eight parachutists and the pilot died when the Walter Fletcher plane plunged to the ground on 4 September 2010. Four tourists - from Ireland, Australia, Germany and England - were among those killed.

TAIC said today that it had changed its original finding that it was the weight and balance of the aircraft caused the crash.

It now says it is unlikely that either weight or balance was the primary cause of the crash.

The original report, in May 2012, by the TAIC blamed the crash on the pilot, the company that operated the plane, the firm that modified the converted topdressing plane and industry regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The Commission today said that its decision to allow key parts of the plane wreckage to be buried, just three days after the crash, had limited its ability to determine the true cause of the accident.

But TAIC is refusing to apologise to the families of victims.

Chief Commissioner Helen Cull QC said the commission's actions in reviewing its own findings spoke louder than words.

Ms Cull told a news conference in Wellington this afternoon she had complete confidence in her management team, even though there had been shortcomings with the crash investigation.

She said the true cause of the accident may never be known.

Ms Cull said a shortage of people and money had been addressed, with more than $1 million of new funding and additional investigators being hired.

The Commission today said that its decision to allow key parts of the plane wreckage to be buried, just three days after the crash, had limited its ability to determine the true cause of the accident.

Tom McCready (left) and Andrew McGregor - independent air accident investigators at dig site.

Tom McCready (left) and Andrew McGregor - independent air accident investigators at dig site. Photo: Peter Newport

The review, commisioned by TAIC, said that the possibility of a mechanical failure could not be ruled out, but the state of the control structure parts, which were buried for three and half years, was such that the true cause may never be found.

The review said additional damage to the plane wreckage was caused by it being moved three times during the course of the investigation.

Serious questions about the conduct of the investigation were raised at the inquest into the crash and independent air crash investigators have since highlighted a number of problems with the investigation and its original conclusions.

These doubts led an investigative team from TV3 to uncover the wreckage of the plane, which was then trucked to Christchurch and made available to TAIC for further examination.

TAIC subsequently comissioned the independent review.

The review found resourcing at the accident site was inadequate, procedures for controlling and handling evidence should have been better and further testing and analysis should have been done.

The review said Commission staff had responded to the criticisms and overall accepted its conclusions.

TAIC said the investigation had been undertaken under difficult circumstances.

"The investigator in charge was the only available Commission air investigator on that day. He attended the accident from Christchurch while continuing to deal with the aftermath of a major earthquake (on the same day as the accident) that had affected his home and family."

But it said the benefit of reviewing the investigation was to fix any gaps and strengthen its operating procedures and it said actions had been taken to address the gaps identified by the review.

These included:

- Seeking more government money to better resource investigations, including employing additional investigators and contracting experts to undertake detailed testing where required.

- Ensuring at least two accident investigators go to every site and that they have a mix of technical and operational investigative skills.

Independent investigator Andrew McGregor helped the media team excavate the wreckage and said by not doing a full new report, the Commission was trying to bury its own failings.

"It is a complete backdown and they should have written a proper report really, I think they're trying to patch over the original report by adding an addendum or something extra, but they should have re-written it."

Family of crash victim highly critical of TAIC

Overseas relatives of the crash victims have also been highly critical of the Commission's handling of the crash investigation.

Chris Coker, whose son Bradley was one of the nine people killed, told Nine to Noon he was angry that the real cause of the crash may never be known.

"It's difficult enough to lose your child in an instance like this, but to have no redress, and to be lied to, is just very, very, very painful.

"It's a complete and utter breach of trust."

He said at the time the families were told by the authorities that all the wreckage had been taken to a "safe location" when in fact it had already been buried.

He said both TAIC and CAA should face some action.

"When you're responsible for someone else's life, it's not acceptable that you can carry on like this," he said.

The aircraft control column - buried with other vital control systems only 3 days after the crash.

The aircraft control column - buried with other vital control systems only 3 days after the crash. Photo: Peter Newport