Questions around fatal Northland helicopter crash as CAA tally hits 14 accidents and 18 deaths

By Brittany Keogh

The first pilot to spot the wreckage of yesterday's fatal helicopter crash in a Northland forest saw wreckage and a small flame at the bottom of a steep, bush-clad gully.

Two people were killed when their Robinson R44 helicopter crashed just after 2pm in the Glenbervie Forest.

Northland Rescue Helicopter chief pilot Pete Turnbull described seeing parts of the ill-fated helicopter in some of the region's most inhospitable terrain.

He said to the lay person it did not appear that anyone could have survived the crash.

"There was a tiny trickle of smoke coming out of the forest," he said.

"I could see a tail rotor and a tail boom skid and it looked badly damaged."

He said the helicopter had plummeted to the bottom of a very steep, rugged forestry block.

"It was 200 to 300m down a steep, inhospitable slope right in the V of the gully."

He said the crash area was covered in dense native bush which had not been cleared. It was near impossible to see it from the nearby forestry road.

The forest is owned by Rayonier and the crash victims were believed to have been contractors surveying the forest who were well-known in the forestry industry.

Yesterday's crash brought the number of people killed in fatal New Zealand crashes involving Robinson helicopters to 20 since 1996.

About 300 Robinson choppers are registered in New Zealand and the brand makes up 40 per cent of the nation's helicopter fleet.

Rayonier told 1 News staff at the company were "offering support" to the victims' families.

Yesterday afternoon emergency crews trekked through tracks fringed by pine and native trees on foot because the crash site was inaccessible by vehicles.

A paramedic was winched down to the crash scene before land crews arrived. But by the time the paramedic touched down the victims were already dead.

When rescuers arrived around 2pm they found the bodies amongst the wreckage.

The crash comes only days after the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) added Robinson Helicopters to its watchlist of safety concerns.

In a statement released Thursday TAIC said along with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), it had investigated 14 cases since 1996 where the inner part of a main rotor blade or rotor hub of Robinson choppers had bumped the main rotor drive shaft or "mast".

It said the accidents had claimed 18 lives.

Emergency services head to the scene of a helicopter crash in Glenbervie Forest. Photo / John Stone
Emergency services head to the scene of a helicopter crash in Glenbervie Forest. Photo / John Stone

Peter Northcote, spokesman for TAIC, said it would monitor the CAA's inquiry into yesterday's crash, before deciding whether or not to launch its own investigation.

Police said they were investigating what the chopper was doing before it crashed and were yet to establish what had caused the accident. A post mortem would be conducted today and the wreckage remained at the crash site overnight.

After TAIC raised concerns about Robinson helicopters on Thursday, the mother of a previous crash victim spoke out about her loss.

Louisa Patterson, who lost her 18-year-old son James Patterson-Gardner in a R44 crash last year alongside Wanaka pilot Steve Combe, 42, said she did not want any other family to "pay the ultimate price" of losing a loved one in such horrific circumstances.

The dense forest and steep country around the area of a helicopter crash in Glenbervie Forest. Photo / John Stone
The dense forest and steep country around the area of a helicopter crash in Glenbervie Forest. Photo / John Stone

"Nothing will bring back Steve and James nor the other victims of the many in flight breakups of this aircraft type," she said.

"Other Robinson accidents have been blamed on turbulence or pilot inexperience. In our case, the instructor was experienced and from the tracking data, the aircraft was being flown in the cruise, in calm weather and at a safe altitude.

"We firmly believe that had Steve and James been in any other aircraft type the accident would not have occurred."

Out of respect for the victims' families Patterson declined to comment on yesterday's crash, except to say she offered her "full condolences" to the loved ones of those killed.

Attempts by the Herald to contact US-based Robinson for comment were unsuccessful because of the time difference.

However, in August this year the company attributed the cause of crash that killed Patterson-Gardner to pilot error.

- NZ Herald

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