Crash that killed helicopter pilot fighting Christchurch fire under investigation

Three investigations are under way into how a helicopter pilot and war hero died fighting a fire yesterday. Ex-SAS serviceman and Waimakariri local David Steven Askin, 38, died in a chopper crash near the Sugarloaf car park in the Port Hills just after 2pm.

He was pouring water on an inferno that had engulfed 600 hectares near Christchurch when the Squirrel chopper he was in went down. Askin died at the scene.

Police and the Civil Aviation Authority are investigating the crash. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) has announced it will also begin its own inquiry.

Police will examine the crash site today.

Before working as a commercial pilot, Askin, known to his mates as Steve, served with the 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment in Afghanistan.

He was awarded the New Zealand Gallantry Star, the second-highest military honour a Kiwi soldier can receive, in 2014 for his work there.

He was wounded in a five-hour grenade-and-gun battle against the Taliban.

A Defence Force spokesman said Askin showed "exceptional bravery" during this and other missions, rescuing guests from the hotel as a fire broke out despite being injured.

Steve Askin on Way to Go's website.
Steve Askin on Way to Go's website.

Then-Prime Minister John Key told the Herald Kiwi soldiers were called in to help the Afghan police when the Taliban stormed the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul on June 29, 2011.

Ten Afghan civilians died in the confrontation, along with all the Taliban militants, and Askin and another New Zealand solider were hurt.

Army chief Major General Peter Kelly said Askin always "put himself in the line of fire, and put the objectives of the mission before his personal wellbeing" in his 15 years of military service.

"He was an outstanding soldier who served his country with bravery and commitment. The same bravery and commitment he showed in helping his community fight these fires.

"During his time in Afghanistan, Corporal Askin displayed great gallantry and leadership in the face of the enemy. He put himself in the line of fire, and put the objectives of the mission before his personal wellbeing."

Askin's citation for his Gallantry Star read:

"[He] repeatedly faced heavy fire from determined enemies and sustained several wounds in the line of duty, while contributing to the resolution of several incidents, the protection of civilian life and undermining enemy operations.

"[Askin]'s performance was of the highest order and in keeping with the finest traditions of New Zealand's military record."

His name was redacted when Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee announced he would receive the award in December 2014 to protect his privacy.

The Herald ran a front page story the day after the June 29 raid about the Kiwis' involvement in the mission, including a photo of three SAS servicemen leaving the InterContinental.

David Askin died while fighting the Port Hills fires in Christchurch. Photo / Facebook
David Askin died while fighting the Port Hills fires in Christchurch. Photo / Facebook

The photograph, originally published in a UK newspaper, showed one man, now confirmed to be Askin, with his helmet off and blood streaming down the right side of his face.

He remained an active member of the SAS reserves after retiring from the armed forces in 2013.

Since returning to New Zealand Askin worked as a pilot at Christchurch-based Way To Go Heliservices.

The chopper he was in when he crashed was believed to have belonged to the company.

Way to Go Heliservices principal Rob Kittow made a statement on behalf of staff, saying Askin was a "much loved and vital member of our team".

"He has always exemplified the attitude of the quiet professional," the statement read.

"Steve has always served his community, either with his career in the military or as yesterday when he was fighting the Port Hills fire.

"Steve had responded with his machine when the alarm was first raised on Monday night to protect the threatened properties and had returned yesterday morning to help fight the fire.

"Steve has had an association with Way to Go Heliservices since 2008 first as a ground support and flying duties and has been a valued member of the North Canterbury community.

"Steve has long been involved in helicopter fire fighting for instance the Flock Hill fire two years ago and many since, including the latest Broken River fire when most Cantabrians were enjoying the Waitangi weekend.

"Steve was heavily involved in helping the Kaikoura community following last year's earthquake, flying electricity workers into the back country as they worked to restore power to the cut off community.

"Steve loved New Zealand and the outdoors. He was an inspiration to other staff with his professionalism and dedication to duty.

"We have been heartened by the messages of support and condolences from around the country that we have received.

"Our immediate priority is to support Steve's family, friends and colleagues, we are co-operating fully with the authorities."

TAIC's lead investigator Tim Burfoot said a Christchurch-based staff member had gone to the crash site shortly after the accident and had gathered some evidence by dusk last night.

Two Wellington-based investigators were on their way to Christchurch to continue making inquiries.

"Our intention is to go back on site ...but we will be guided by the Fire Service on whether that is safe or not, given there is still active fire fighting in the area," Burfoot said.

The Squirrel helicopter involved in the crash is expected to be removed tomorrow.

Transport Accident Investigation Commission investigator in charge Ian McClelland said he and two other commission investigators had been at the crash site for much of today; surveying the wreckage, taking notes and recovering some items.

The team was now off-site but would return first thing tomorrow morning to prepare the wreckage for airlifting to a secure area for further analysis, McClelland said.

Much would depend on weather conditions and the fire. The fire had burned to within one and a half to two kilometres of the crash site today, he said.

"There is no immediate danger to the crash site, however."

If the process went smoothly, the airlift could happen between 11am and noon.

There was restricted access to the area because of the fire, he said.

Askin's employer declined to comment, saying it would release a statement later.

Way To Go Heliservices' website described Askin as an enthusiastic, highly experienced pilot who "brings a background of discipline and professionalism to all tasks that he undertakes".


Cartoon: Rod Emmerson

He was passionate about the outdoors and always made sure clients had an experience to remember, the website said.

Scores of Askin's friends who appeared to have served in the Army with him have shared a New Zealand Herald cartoon of a fallen soldier on Facebook in tribute to their fallen mate.

The cartoon, by Rod Emmerson, depicts a Kiwi soldier with his head bowed in front of a white cross. The image is captioned: "He who dares nothing need hope for nothing but he who dares wins".

The New Zealand Herald originally published the cartoon in September 2011 to pay homage to a Kiwi soldier killed in action in Afghanistan.

- NZ Herald

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