Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the NZME. News Service office in Wellington.

Anzac Day crash pilot followed training

The RNZAF Iroquois helicopter crashed into a steep hillside north of Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The RNZAF Iroquois helicopter crashed into a steep hillside north of Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A pilot leading a formation of Air Force helicopters during the Anzac Day tragedy three years ago was following his training in flying below low hanging cloud, a tribunal has been told.

Evidence was being given at a military tribunal at the Royal New Zealand Air Force base at Ohakea today into the actions of Flight Lieutenant Dan Pezaro on April 25, 2010.

On that morning the second helicopter in the formation crashed into a hillside south of Pukerua Bay on the Kapiti Coast, killing three crew members and seriously injuring a forth.

Flight Lieutenant Pezaro, 30, has denied a charge that he was negligent in continuing with the mission despite poor weather conditions.

The tribunal heard a taped phone conversation between a Sergeant who worked in the Ohakea fire service and Flight Lieutenant Pezaro, who called after the crash.

He told the sergeant cloud had descended to 250 to 300 feet and they had to fly below that level, which was below the minimum height for choppers.

Retired Squadron Leader Rob Stockley, who authorised the mission, said today it was accepted practice that poor weather could force aircraft to fly low.

Prosecuting officer Anthony Budd showed Mr Stockley a weather forecast for 4am of the day of the flight and Mr Stockley said the forecast indicated there would have been a "low chance" of the mission going ahead.

But under cross-examination by defence lawyer Squadron Leader Ron Thacker, he said forecasts changed "all the time".

He told Squadron Leader Budd that Flight Lieutenant Pezaro had volunteered for the mission and had been "pleasantly surprised" to be named formation leader.

But Mr Stockley said the pilot had wondered if he needed to be better qualified.

"I was absolutely comfortable that Pez (EDS: CRRCT) had the experience to lead the formation."

He said Flight Lieutenant Pezaro would have been trained and involved in the culture at the squadron, which believed pilots had the discretion to fly at low altitudes if the weather demanded it and if there was a safe escape route out of the situation.

"At the time of the accident the discretion was real and the practice of using it was not in breach of procedure."

He said that attitude had since changed in the Air Force.

Squadron Leader Thacker asked if he considered the pilot's decision to continue with the mission as negligent.

"No I don't," Mr Stockley replied.

Another prosecution witness, Staff Sergeant Michael Marr, a senior investigator with the military police showed a video of an interview with Flight Lieutenant Pezaro.

In the interview, Flight Lieutenant Pezaro said he knew the weather was not ideal, but he had prepared different flight paths to try to ensure they would get to Wellington for the flyover.

He was asked if he had been excited about the mission as part of it was to be televised.

"TV didn't register at all...the main excitement was doing the fly past."

During the interview he was asked by Staff Sergeant Marr if there had been any pressure from superior officers to ensure the formation arrived on time in Wellington, but Flight Lieutenant said there was none.

Another witness, Flight Lieutenant Mike Garrett, who was the captain of the third helicopter in the formation, confirmed there was no pressure to complete the mission.

His experience in the squadron before the crash was that orders could be "haphazard" at times in order to get tasks done on time.

Squadron Leader Budd said considering the weather report, would a decision to delay the mission have been prudent?

Flight Lieutenant Garrett said it wasn't a report but a forecast, so not guaranteed.

He said three years ago he would have gone up in adverse weather rather than waiting.

At the end of the hearing, before Wing Commander Shaun Sexton, to determine if there is evidence to support a prima facie case, Wing Commander Sexton will decide whether the matter will be tried summarily or go to a court martial.

The hearing continues.


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