For the first time, details can be revealed of deaths of those who lost their lives while taking part in elite NZ Special Air Service training. David Fisher reveals how the NZSAS trains at the edge of safety to prepare for operations which take place at the extremes of danger.
NZSAS records exclusively obtained by the Herald include details of one trooper who died after being stomped to death by an elephant in Africa and another who was killed after having almost a ton of explosive dropped on him by a United States jet.
The specialist unit this week suffered its tenth training fatality since it was established in the 1950s with the death of Lance Corporal Nicholas Kahotea.
Kahotea died during a counter-terrorism exercise - the second such exercise to have claimed a life in two years.
The elite unit has held responsibility for handling New Zealand's response for dealing with terrorism since around 1980, after a surge of incidents internationally.
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It was spurred along by the famous "Siege of Princes Gate", which ended with the British 22 SAS stormed the Iranian embassy and killed those holding hostages. The responsibility for counter-terrorism currently sits with D Squadron, based at the Papakura home of the NZSAS.
Last year, the Herald produced an investigation into what it took to make an NZSAS trooper from selection through to the necessary psychological make up and training demands.
As part of the research for the series, the NZ Defence Force was asked to provide inquiry reports into those who had lost their lives during training incidents in the NZSAS' modern incarnation. It was a period which began after Vietnam, as the NZSAS worked to establish its role over a long period during which New Zealand's international contribution was less the years before.
NZDF released the information earlier this year. The reports show:
Philippines: February 26, 1981
When a modified Hercules C130 transport crashed off the Philippines in 1980, it offered a glimpse of the extensive offshore training routine the NZSAS developed and continue to this day.
The plane had been flying "extremely low" and fast at the point it hit the water, disintegrating on impact and killing 23 of 24 people aboard.
It was a terrible double blow for the NZSAS, with the deaths of Warrant Officer David Heywood and Sergeant Dennis Terry. The men's death were the first to hit the unit for 11 years.
The men were two of 12 who had been sent to the Philippines for the training exercise. Another of those would be killed in another training accident three years later.
The Court of Inquiry report details are sparse, and doesn't actually mention the NZSAS. It does make reference to the men being deployed on a special forces training course, with other details obtained by the Herald showing it was SPECWAREX - the Special Warfare Exercise.
The Court of Inquiry file, recovered from Archives NZ and de-classified to be released, is largely an accounting of recovering the men's effects with the actual cause of the crash left to the US military investigation.
The report records the plane crashing between 5am and 6am near Tabores Island, which was about 10 minutes flying time from Subic Bay. The bay housed the largest United States military base outside the country at the time. It was about the size of Singapore and closed in 1991.
The NZSAS was on a training flight with Australia, Philippines and US special forces. "They were involved in the final stages of a Special Forces exercise," reads the inquiry report.
Other details recovered from Archives NZ show two NZSAS legends travelled to the Philippines to represent the regiment at the memorial service. Colonel Frank Rennie - the founder of the NZSAS - attended, along with Brigadier Ian Hamilton Burrows, who was one of the "originals", having served with the regiment's founding deployment for the "Malaya emergency".
The inquiry report lists the equipment the men were carrying - a diving knife, lifejackets and a 9mm Sterling submachine gun.
The aircrew of nine - there were 15 special forces abroad - had flown 12 night missions in two weeks, and were members of a squadron which had operated at high tempo over the previous 12 months. A book balled The Praetorian Starship said the post-accident investigation found no exact cause for the crash but believed fatigue to have played a role. The squadron carries out a memorial flight every year.
Arthur's Pass: January 25, 1984
There are few environments as immediately dangerous as the Southern Alps in winter.
It was here Corporal Rob Ngaira lost his life while on a NZSAS mountain troop training exercise called Alpine Trek.
The Court of Inquiry report into his death stated: "The aim of the exercise was to train and practise troops in tactical alpine travel on terrain east and west of the Main Divide and in the crossing of mountain passes."
It was Ngaira who had been assigned to the exercise in the Philippines which claimed two members of the NZSAS. Three years later, he lost his life.
Once through selection, the NZSAS carry out basic training to develop the skills needed to be a basic member of the elite unit.
They are then expected to choose and develop specialities in one of four areas - operating in alpine areas, in marine environments, in the air through parachuting expertise or on land with highly-trained vehicle capabilities.
Ngaira was photographed with the 4 Troop, with a placard depicting a diver's helmet and the words "Amphib(ious) Troop" across the top. It suggested Ngaira had developed a marine speciality before finding himself in the Southern Alps.
Given it was January, the weather was fine although the seven-man climbing team of which Ngaira was a member had found itself high on Mt Rolleston near an area called the Rome Gap.
The inquiry report records the section of mountain across which they were moving having a 45 degree gradient - "moderate to difficult in mountaineering terms" - with snow that sank 20cm underfoot.
"I heard someone call out 'man gone'," records an inquest statement from a fellow NZSAS member. "I looked down. I heard someone sliding on the snow. Then I saw him entering a big snow shute. He was really going."
The soldier described Ngaira as having his "head up, feet down" but rolling from back to stomach continuously.
"He then went out of sight."
One other soldier who testified at the inquest described how Ngaira disappeared over a lip, and how two avalanches followed.
The evidence also recounts how his mates sprang to action, describing roping dozens of metres down the mountainside, in treacherous conditions, to search for the missing trooper. All through this, they unsuccessfully attempted to radio for help but were unable to connect with the outside world.
Their efforts continued until they made camp at 9.30pm, rising in the morning to send two men out on foot to find help. Ngaira's body was recovered after a search in the days following.
The inquiry report found all were properly equipped and were operating in clear weather with good visibility. All present had qualified on the basic NZSAS climbing course and Ngaira had previous experience with ice and snow.
"The party was not roped at the time of the accident," the report states. The two ropes carried were still being used for climbing with a decision yet to be made on roping the party together when the accident happened.
When it come to understanding how the accident happened, the inquiry found Ngaira had crossed the section of the mountain 5 metres away from the trooper who had made the initial path. It described there being "confusion" as to the instructions given.
"It is apparent Corporal Ngaira crossed out of turn and did not use the established route for the traverse."
It was also acknowledged the weight the troopers were carrying would have hastened Ngaria's descent. Each man had around 30kg of weight in a pack which placed the centre of gravity high, potentially causing balance issues.
In the end, the inquiry found there was no criticism to be laid - it was an exceptional, military event.
"The exercise being conducted has no civilian equivalent. It combines two separate activities, climbing and tramping. The operational requirement imposes a heavy equipment load. This conflicts with the climbing ideal of carrying a light load.
"There are no recommendations to improve safety on future exercises."
Zimbabwe: June 16, 1995
"Death due to multiple injuries caused by elephant."
The stated cause of death for Lance-Corporal Dan Flanagan was so unusual, there was a long-held belief among family they weren't being told the truth. It likely wasn't helped by the lack of a Court of Inquiry hearing into his death.
Flanagan's reason for being in Zimbabwe is still unclear. The country at the time had thrown off British rule and was only five years a republic.
It had a number of peacekeeping roles across Africa but its own military was downsizing - a necessity which created problems in later years as veterans on shrinking pensions sought the benefits of the peace they had won.
It is likely Flanagan was part of a Commonwealth special forces training exercise with New Zealand contributing its expertise to a country with its own colonial links to Britain.
The location of his death offers a clue. The form released to the Herald was to record a death which came about for reasons "other than natural causes".
It lists the location of his death as the Wafa Wafa Training Camp, Kariba, Zimbabwe. The camp is home to Zimbabwe's special forces. Visitors to the camp are greeted with a sign reading: "Welcome to Wafa Wafa, home of the commandos. No mission is impossible until one drops dead."
The unit carries out a selection process similar to that of the NZSAS (and its parent unit, Britain's 22 SAS) and uses a dagger as part of its insignia.
A report accompanying the form states Flanagan was one of six men taking part in Exercise Falcon Drum. The document talks of the exercise have three phases - the first, a firing element and the second being a "tracking course run by the Zimbabwe SAS Squadron".
The third phase was parachute training, with Flanagan detailed to carry out freefall training, while the fourth to be a surveillance section, with special forces operating ahead of an advancing military group.
It being Zimbabwe, the briefing before the exercise included a briefing from the chief warden of the Zimbabwe National Parks Department.
"He covered the wildlife the squadron could expect to encounter in the Wafa Wafa area and the measures that should be taken to avoid confronting them:"
Flanagan and others parachuted into the exercise area, carrying out a HAHO (high altitude, high opening) jump. It's a style of parachute jump which allows special forces operators to open their parachutes a long distance from the area in which they expect to land, gliding long distances. It has the benefit of disguising movements by having aircraft deliver soldiers a distance from where they will be operating.
The NZSAS troop landed, moved to a place where they could watch the enemy camp unobserved and spent the day carrying out surveillance. At nightfall, they moved out to find a suitable place for a rendezvous the following day.
"They were aware of the elephant nearby but having become accustomed to moving amongst elephants for the previous 24 hours were not unduly concerned."
Two other patrol members nearby watched as the elephant became enraged and chased Flanagan and one other NZSAS trooper for about 100 metres. The animal caught up with Flanagan in a dry river bed.
"LCpl Flanagan was caught and trampled to death by the animal."
His squad mates regrouped after the attack and went to Flanagan's aid. It was too late.
"The attack was unprovoked, very sudden and brutal," the commander wrote. Nothing could have been done to have stopped the elephant, or deterred it from pursuing the men.
Kuwait: March 13, 2001
Just months before our modern world changed forever, John McNutt died in the desert in Kuwait.
He was a NZSAS officer, at the rank of acting major. McNutt, 27, had been posted to a role usually filled by a senior officer but he was so good, so promising, his rank was elevated to meet the job he was doing.
It was a simpler time. The question of Saddam Hussein remained just that - one which hadn't been fully answered by the United States a decade earlier.
In September that year, passenger jets would be flown into the Twin Towers in New York. In a matter of years, Iraq would be dishonestly linked to the terrorist attacks and an extraordinary amount of explosive would be dropped in the Middle East.
It's an odd contrast but the three 500 pound bombs which killed McNutt seem tiny in comparison to what would come. Tiny, but more than enough.
The Court of Inquiry report steps quickly through the error and tragedy which cost McNutt his life.
The finding, in the end, was pilot error. It was unnecessary and earned the pilot, and the person aiming the bombs, a sanction. Obviously, it cost McNutt his life.
It was a night-time exercise on the Udairi Range, about 15km from Iraq. The range was called a range, not because it was a "range" of mountains but because it was a bombing "range". It was a flat, featureless expanse which the United States pounded with ordnance of all descriptions.
The bombing run watched by McNutt, and a cluster of other observers, wasn't anything special.
The inquiry report described the target as a "cratered blackened out area with indiscernible vehicles". McNutt was at the observation post 2km south of the target.
In a forecast of what would happen that night, a flight of fighters had been sent back to base during the day because of difficulties distinguishing the target from the "friendly" areas.
Either day or night, considerable effort went into distinguishing areas which should be bombed and those which shouldn't.
The aircraft involved were F18 Hornets, which can carry out air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, travelling at almost twice the speed of sound.
The aircraft which dropped the bombs was Lion 71. They were supported by a "Forward Air Controller" on the ground and a second spotter in a similar role who was airborne.
"All aircrew involved were highly regarded as competent, fit and professional crew" whose training and qualifications were up-to-date, the inquiry report stated.
Lion 71 had flown 1194 hours in the F18 Hornet out of a total of 3341 hours, which was a phenomenal amount of experience. The report said: "He was considered to be a mature, experienced pilot who enjoyed the confidence of superior officers."
Neither Lion 71 or the airborne spotter, called Sniper, carried out flights over the target area. When asked later, the ground-based spotter said it wasn't considered to have been required as a flight had been done earlier in the day to mark the position of the observation post and to check no Bedouin had wandered onto the range.
So when it came to the bomb drop, Sniper passed into the area running through a checklist identifying areas which could be bombed and those which couldn't. In fact, the entire incident report describes various parties reading through checklists and following a formula it appears all had done dozens of time previously.
They appeared to have found a rut and fallen into it.
When Lion 71 called for infrared identification of the target, the ground-based spotter turned to check the right target was being lit up. It was - but Lion 71 fixed on the illumination around the observation post containing McNutt had others.
When it came time to drop the bombs, nobody realised Lion 71 had mis-identified the observation post until it was too late. When Lion 71 dropped the bombs, he did so before receiving the "cleared hot" clearance.
The instant the bombs were released, the ground-based spotter realised the aircraft had lined up the wrong target. The call, "Abort, abort, abort" came too late.
The bombs hit within 50 metres of the observation post, killing McNutt and four others. Twelve others were injured, with one later dying en route to hospital.
When it came to understanding how the incident happened, the New Zealand inquiry leaned on the US findings. It pointed to pilots slipping out of approved terminology - they were casual - and the ground-based spotter turning away at a crucial time. There was also criticism of the airborne spotter's actions.
The inquiry resulted in recommendations to improve safety on the range, and for disciplinary action against the pilots involved.
From a New Zealand perspective, the recommendation was to continue as it had been. Truly, there was nothing which NZDF could have done which would have saved McNutt.
When you walk with giants - as the US military must have seemed - there was a danger of being crushed.
Coromandel: October 13, 2017
It was a counter-terrorism, with Sergeant Wayne Taylor tasked with others to board a ship from a rigid-inflatable boat.
For Taylor and other NZSAS operators, it would have seemed like exactly the job for which they had signed on.
It was spring, the sun was rising and they were on the sea just off one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand. They had come out of the dark, and were taking a ship which was under the control of terrorists.
It was an exercise they had completed numerous times previously. That gave no room for complacency - repetition was the path to excellence, and the NZSAS was all about excellence.
The RIB pulled alongside the Olivia Maersk container ship and an assault ladder went up the side. It was a specially developed ladder which would allow the assault team to scale the high-sides of the ship and board it.
It was a "rough, hard climb", one the NZSAS troopers told the inquiry. Another described it was one of the hardest he had experienced. Troopers scaled the ladder with their backs to the ships hull, in some cases. One reported being spun 360 degrees after feeling a rough jolt. When he reached the top, he discovered the guard rail on which the ladder was secured had bent and deformed.
The problem with the ladder posed a serious problem for Taylor, who was the last man to make the climb. The bent guardrail left Taylor hanging at an awkward angle. It shifted the ladder, and the inquiry report stated there was no "anti-twist" system built into it.
Taylor's ascent of the ladder stopped when his foot became trapped in the ladder. It took 30 seconds or more to free it with the help of another trooper.
He stopped, then continued and "his pace became noticeably slower than the other climbers". About halfway up the ladder, "he came to a stop".
Taylor remained hanging onto the side of the ship for more than a minute before falling. Those watching were unsure why. Some thought it fatigue, others that he was trying to disentangle himself and abort the climb.
Throughout, he was about 5m from the sea and a body length from the ship. The clearest view was from above, and the trooper there watched Taylor frustrated, cursing and trying to kick his leg free of the twisting, unstable ladder.
Eventually he did win free and stayed in place on the ladder for about 10 seconds.
And then he fell. When he did, his head hit the RIB, knocking him unconscious, and he slipped into the sea.
The absence of an automatically inflating life jacket meant his head wasn't supported above water. His mates watched him being pulled away from the ship by the sea, then rolling through the wake of the Olivia Maersk. One sighting of a hand being raised was a forlorn interpretation of an unconscious man being rolled by the turbulence of the ship's passage.
By the time Taylor was brought into the RIB, he had drowned. Determined and urgent resuscitation efforts on the RIB were to no avail. The NZSAS trooper set out for Port Jackson, at the top of the Coromandel, and the day properly broke with the arrival of ambulances and a rescue helicopter - all too late.
The recommendations which came out of the accident largely send the message that the systems, training and techniques were sufficient. The inquiry found the ladders needed to be checked, and that it was worth investigating automatically inflating life jackets for future training exercises.
It was also suggested a range of baseline measures be developed to standardise the high levels at which the counter-terrorism - D Squadron - were expected to operate.
But there was nothing to suggest Taylor had fallen short of those baselines. Instead, the report found he was carrying out a mission much like many others he had previously.
When the military refer to the special forces personnel - not just in New Zealand but abroad - they refer to "operators".
It's a term which denotes a special form of activity, a mode distinct from that employed by others.
The development of a soldier to an operator comes through selection and constant training, at the highest and most challenging level.
As the inquiry found with the investigation into Taylor's death, "the level of climb was challenging and towards the upper limit".
However, it was "firmly within what would be expected of special forces operations".
* This story does not include those killed in training prior to 1980. They were: Trooper FM van Oorschot, who died January 1961 in Hunua; Lance Corporal PT Harawira, killed September 1961at Taupiri; Lance Corporal G Porter, killed August 1970 at Meremere.