An Air Force squadron which lost a Napier man and two other members in the Anzac Day Iroquois crash three years ago had a culture of rule-breaking and risk taking, a Military Tribunal has been told.
The evidence came yesterday as the one-man tribunal began hearing the defence of Flight Lieutenant Dan Pezaro, who denies negligently failing to abort a three-helicopter mission as the weather closed in when the formation flew from Ohakea to Wellington for Anzac Day commemorations on April 25, 2010.
Flight Lieutenant Hayden Madsen, son of Taradale couple Peter and Julie Madsen, and a close friend of the now-accused flyer, was killed along with Flying Officer Dan Gregory and Corporal Ben Carson. Flight Lieutenant Pezaro was originally charged with negligently failing to abort the whole mission, but pleaded not guilty last week to an amended charge. More than a dozen pilots told the tribunal the actions of the lead pilot on the morning of the crash were reasonable and they would have acted in the same way. They also told of the rule-breaking and risk-taking culture in the tragedy-hit RNZAF 3 Squadron. The defence is expected to call two more witnesses today before the disciplinary officer decides on a verdict. If found guilty, Flight Lieutenant Pezaro faces a maximum penalty of two years in a military jail.
Flight Lieutenant Pezaro is accused of flying the formation beneath low cloud, under the Air Force minimum height.
Four pilots with similar flying experience said they had seen minimum height levels infringed by 3 Squadron executives and senior officers with no repercussions. Squadron Leader Anna Shaw, Squadron Leader Adam Huston, Flight Lieutenant Mike Adair and Flight Lieutenant Greg Jane said their training reinforced the idea that standard operating procedures (SOPs) were guidelines and minimum flying levels were open for interpretation, depending on weather conditions.
Squadron Leader Huston said he experienced "first hand" a senior officer flying in worse conditions. All said Flight Lieutenant Pezaro had not behaved negligently and that other pilots, including themselves, would have acted the same in similar conditions. Statements from nine other pilots supporting Flight Lieutenant Pezaro were read to the tribunal.
All supported his actions and said the squadron had a history of rule-breaking and risk-taking to get the job done. Flight Lieutenant Kane Sanson said the unit was praised in places such as East Timor for cutting through red tape to complete missions.
Safety expert Squadron Leader Jim Rankin, who worked at 3 Squadron before the crash, said the state of orders and SOPs were a "shambles" when he arrived. On three occasions he had been part of briefings where senior officers had condoned flexibility around SOPs. "The effect was contradictory and confusing," he said.