Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Lives still at risk, pilot's grieving mother claims

Tighter flight rules called for as report from official safety inquiry nears release

Investigators look over the wreckage of a Cessna 152 in which Jessica Neeson and Patricia Smallman died after a mid-air collision in July 2010. Photo / Kevin Bills
Investigators look over the wreckage of a Cessna 152 in which Jessica Neeson and Patricia Smallman died after a mid-air collision in July 2010. Photo / Kevin Bills

The flight training industry stands on the threshold, says Lyn Neeson: either tighten regulations now or lose more of the country's finest young pilots.

Neeson's daughter, Jessica, a flight instructor, was killed with her student, Patricia Smallman, in July 2010 in a mid-air collision with another plane, piloted by Indian student Manoj Kadam.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission launched an inquiry into the industry in the wake of the accident and is preparing to release the final report this month.

Neeson has seen a draft report and, though bound by strict confidentiality agreements, believes it falls well short of fixing safety problems.

Neeson says that visual flight rules, where pilots are free to fly wherever they like, are not sufficient in busy areas such as the skies above Manawatu, where military, commercial and flight trainers vie for airspace.

The alternative, instrument flight rules, require more pilot training and better-equipped planes.

"I guess all families of victims think that this is inadequate, but the Civil Aviation Authority's refusal to consider alternatives is very frustrating."

Jessica, 27, had taught students at Flight Training Manawatu for about five years.

Lyn said her daughter also had concerns about how many times international students were allowed to resit exams - as long as they had the money to keep training, they could fail as many times as they liked.

"With the increase and encouragement of international flying students, it is imperative that New Zealand's aviation industry learn from mistakes and improves safety or more of our shining young people are at risk."

CAA figures show an exponential rise in the number of collisions and near-misses involving flight schools in recent years.

In the 1990s there were three near-misses involving training flights. The following decade, that number increased to 60, and seven fatalities investigated by the CAA involved training school flights.

In 2008 alone there were 18 near-misses and three fatalities from training school flights.

CAA data showed that pilot training hours had doubled in the past 15 years to nearly 300,000 hours per year at the 21 flight training schools around the country. It is not clear how quickly the number of schools has grown though.

In all but one of the fatal accidents, the planes were operating under visual flight rules, which rely on the pilots looking and listening out for other aircraft.

Neither the accident commission nor the CAA would comment ahead of the report's release.

However, flight trainers believe that existing safety measures are working.

Eagle Flight Training chief executive Alex Zapisetskiy said his school was continually monitoring and improving its safety measures.

All students were assessed to make sure they were physically and emotionally fit, and the importance of situational awareness was constantly driven home.

Trainees were taught to keep their eyes outside the cockpit and look for traffic.

"The collisions are more to do with the personality of the pilot," he said. "Ninety-five per cent of accidents are human error."

- Herald on Sunday

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