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Key heads home after loss of Iroquois

By Claire Trevett

The Prime Minister is now expected back in New Zealand tomorrow, hopefully in time for parliamentary tributes to the airmen. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Prime Minister is now expected back in New Zealand tomorrow, hopefully in time for parliamentary tributes to the airmen. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Prime Minister John Key has postponed a visit to the Middle East to return home following the deaths of three Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel.

The three, two pilots and a crewman, are all from No 3 Squadron, which Mr Key recently privately visited at Ohakea following the death of another No 3 Squadron flyer, Squadron leader Nicholas Cree, in January.

Mr Key told reporters at Gallipoli commemorations in Turkey yesterday that he had flown with the crew, that he knew them personally and was devastated by the loss.

The Prime Minister is now expected back in New Zealand tomorrow, hopefully in time for parliamentary tributes to the airmen.

He had planned to catch up with a 90-strong New Zealand trade mission, led by Trade Minister Tim Groser, to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Mr Key may yet return to the Middle East after the funerals, a spokesman said last night.

Mr Key said his heart went out to the men and women of the Air Force.

"They will be grieving and absolutely shocked by what has happened. I think New Zealanders right across the country will feel it, and our hearts go out to their families at this time."

Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae also expressed his condolences to the families of the men and members of the force, saying it was particularly poignant given what they were doing, on Anzac Day - heading to commemorations in Wellington for a fly-pass.

The men he had spoken to in Gallipoli were "definitely feeling it".

"We are a small defence force and we know these people, the Prime Minister knows these people, I know them. We fly with them all the time, they are part of our family."

But it was a tragedy that came with the job, he said. The Iroquois was the one often used to transport Mr Key.

The New Zealand flag was lowered to half-mast before dawn and Mr Key acknowledged the deaths in his address at Gallipoli.

EXTRA POIGNANCY AT SERVICE

As soon as the karanga began, the crowd filling Anzac Cove for Gallipoli commemorations hushed completely. It was a raw, keening karanga from a woman who had just been told three of her colleagues had died a long way away back at home.

The crowd listened, entranced. When a group of Turkish men began to talk at one point they were angrily hushed by some Australian girls.

The crowd did not know of the deaths at that point. Just before, at 5am, someone had moved the darkened podium to lower the New Zealand flag to half mast.

It happened quietly, almost unnoticed. It was the first sign for the 6000 gathered there that something was amiss. The news of the three men killed in the helicopter crash far back in New Zealand had been broken to the 130 defence force staff only a few hours earlier after they had arrived at the Anzac Cove site.

They walked around and waited for the service, faces drawn and distressed. Australia's Governor- General Quentin Bryce made a small reference to a loss in New Zealand but it was Prime Minister John Key who told them what had happened on the way to another Anzac Day service on the other side of the world.

The almost festive atmosphere that led up to that moment disappeared. The crowd had arrived early - the first in the gates at 5pm the day before. All night, they had stayed there, a few camped in tents on grass verges, the rest camped on the grass area in sleeping bags.

- NZ Herald

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