David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Families remember Anzac airmen

Three years after the fatal helicopter crash, the air force say no higher commanders will be prosecuted.

Andrew and Pauline Carson with their son Ben at his air force graduation in August 2009. Ben was killed on Anzac Day 2010. Photo / Supplied
Andrew and Pauline Carson with their son Ben at his air force graduation in August 2009. Ben was killed on Anzac Day 2010. Photo / Supplied

At dawn today in Nelson, the sun will rise on two families deeply marked by Anzac Day. Three years ago today, Ben Carson and Stevin Creeggan raced towards dawn in the back of an air force Iroquois helicopter which became lost in bad weather before crashing into a hill above Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington.

Ben Carson was killed as were the two pilots - Flight Lieutenant Hayden Madsen and Flying Officer Dan Gregory.

This morning, Ben's parents Andrew and Pauline Carson will rise early. An hour before the Nelson Returned Services Association dawn parade finishes, they will pass the third anniversary of their son's death. Beside them, in support, will be John and Gail Creeggan, whose son Stevin survived the crash, albeit with terrible injuries.

Andrew Carson says he always knew military service could carry the ultimate cost. But in Ben's case, they can't help but feel it was a sacrifice for nothing - a peace-time tragedy which only served to expose gaps in the Royal New Zealand Air Force's safety systems.

The Court of Inquiry into the accident found problems extended up the command chain. It prosecuted two lower-ranked officers from 3 Squadron at Ohakea over the crash, with the latest case coming this month. It then widened its review up the command chain as the three-year legal time limit for prosecution approached. Andrew Carson was sceptical when told the air force was investigating right up to the time limit. It told the Herald last week "the role of higher command is still under action by way of legal review".

Yesterday, as the deadline arrived, it said there would be no charges against those higher commanders.

"The investigation has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to charge any further individuals in relation in the 2010 Anzac Day accident."

The Court of Inquiry into the crash was completed on January 20, 2011. A memo to Air Component Commander Steve Moore - an air commodore and one of the air force's most senior officers - told him the inquiry was finished and had been legally reviewed.

The report described a safety system which was overloaded, an unhealthy culture at 3 Squadron and conflicting contradictory orders.

In April that year, Air Commodore Moore finalised the formal process for the inquiry with his comments as the "Assembling Authority" - essentially, the commander who convened the Court of Inquiry.

In his comments, he said the removal of the strike wing in 2001 was partly responsible because it removed layers of command and control.

"This was done for what we thought were good reasons but nobody at the time realised the real impact the changes would make."

On April 13, a copy of the finished report was sent to retiring Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshall Graham Lintott.

He was also sent a draft instruction to set in train the disciplinary investigation into the accident to see if charges should be laid.

The memo was kept as a draft for three months until July 12, when provost marshall Group Captain Russell Sowden was instructed to begin the disciplinary investigation which would eventually be cut short by the three-year time limit.

In August, copies of the report began leaving the defence force. Defence Minister Dr Wayne Mapp was given a copy. On August 30, a copy was sent to the police and to Squadron Leader Rob Stockley, who authorised the fatal flight. His investigation was the first to be taken by the air force. While initially found guilty on administrative charges, the conviction was quashed on appeal. The air force had misunderstood its own orders and Mr Stockley had committed no offence.

The appeal finding came just before the Court of Inquiry report was released. On December 15, 2011, Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell released the report. The defence force has explained the delay in releasing the COI findings and report, saying "natural justice" and "other review" processes were carried out before the December 15 2011 release.

Dr Mapp said the "natural justice" input from affected families "took a lot longer than I was expecting".

The prosecution and then acquittal on appeal of Squadron Leader Stockley was followed 16 months later by the failed prosecution of Flight Lieutenant Dan Pezaro - again the confusing orders he was operating under meaning a charge could not be proved.

The problems included conflicting and confused orders - the reasons for not guilty verdicts being returned against the two men.

Labour defence spokesman Phil Goff said the process followed raised questions over how lower ranks would be prosecuted but there was "not enough time to examine issues higher in the command chain".

"You would have to argue justice was never fully done and somebody should have to answer as to why that is the case."

- NZ Herald

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