The death of a pilot who died towing a glider topped-off a "decade of hell" for his family who lived through earthquakes, suffered the loss of three other family members, and were close to Christchurch mosque shooting victims, an inquest heard today.
Martin Timothy Lowen, 55, died on January 19, 2014 at Springfield, 65kms west of Christchurch minutes after taking off in his Piper PA28-236 fixed-wing airplane from the Canterbury Gliding Club's Springfield airfield about midday towing a two-person glider.
The crash was witnessed by glider pilot John McCaw, uncle of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw who himself is a glider enthusiast.
A coronial inquest into Lowen's death was delayed while official crash investigations were carried out. There were also Covid-19 delays and other adjournments.
But an inquest hearing into the circumstances leading up to the fatal accident, and cause of death, conducted by Deputy Chief Coroner Anna Tutton, began in Christchurch this morning.
It opened with the Coroner inviting widow Elisabeth Lowen to speak about her late husband.
"One word sums up Martin - big," said a McKenzie friend – someone who attends court as a support person - on behalf of Elisabeth Lowen.
"He was a big man who had great physical presence. He was loud and much fun to have around. He had a big appetite for things he loved.
"He did everything 100 per cent. His word meant a lot to him... If he made a mistake, he took full responsibility for his errors."
It has been a "decade of hell" for the Lowen family, the inquest heard, having dealt with insurers after a quake-damaged house, the loss of Lowen, along with three other family members, as well as living with the impact of the March 15, 2019 mosque shootings where they had a "direct relationship" with victims.
Lowen died doing something he loved, the inquest heard, which is some small comfort to his family who still miss him terribly.
John McCallister, an experienced local tow pilot and glider pilot who had flown out of Springfield aerodrome many times, witnessed the "horror" unfold.
Giving evidence today, McCallister said that prior to takeoff, the glider instructor questioned the "pilot under training" at length. He advised that it had been some time since his last flight so the instructor agreed that she would be hovering over the controls.
McCallister, who would later be interviewed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for his version of events, had hooked on the glider and "ran the wing". The wind, he said, was about 10 knots out of a westerly direction.
After takeoff, McCallister thought everything looked normal and so looked away momentarily.
When he glanced back, the "horror started to unfold".
He saw Lowen's plane "rolling very quickly" at an altitude of about 300-400 ft.
Helplessly, he made "useless appeals" to "Pull up!", the inquest heard.
As the plane careered towards some trees, McCallister "forlornly hoped" that Lowen had gone beyond them and either landed safely or lifted and flown onwards.
But he soon heard a crash of snapping branches and then some smoke.
He did not recall an engine in full noise, the inquest was told.
A CAA report found that soon after take-off, the glider rose above Lowen's tow plane, prompting the instructor to attempt to manoeuvre it back into position directly behind.
As the glider descended, it gained speed, slackening the towrope.
The instructor countered by flying to the left of the tow plane which, the report found, caused a "lateral tow upset" in Lowen's plane when the rope tightened again.
"The sudden tensioning of the towrope would have been unexpected resulting in the tow pilot momentarily losing control of the tow plane as it rolled and descended," the report said.
Lowen's plane went into a roll, crashed into trees, and caught fire.
Lowen died of chest, spine and limb injuries and the effects of smoke and fume inhalation.
The glider landed safely.
The CAA report said the instructor ordered the original glider pilot to release the towrope as the craft was making the left turn.
"However, this instruction was either not heard or acknowledged by the [glider pilot]."
The inquest hearing continues.