COMMENT: DEBORAH HART
The Transport Accident Investigation Commission's new report on the 2015 helicopter crash in which seven people perished might as well have been an old report on another local helicopter tragedy in 1987.
Here, for those who may have missed it on either occasion, is the increasingly familiar timeline: A helicopter crashes. People die. The air investigation report is critical of the regulatory body charged with aviation safety. It will reveal that for many years they had, without intercession or reprimand, been flying in contravention of the regulations. The regulatory body vows to do better.
At least until next time.
I know a bit about the 1987 accident that saw much of the power cut off in Wellington after well-known rescue pilot Peter Button's helicopter drifted into power lines. Also on board that day was the property developer Dion Savage along with Ronald Woolf, a celebrated local photographer and, as it happens, my father. All died.
The Civil Aviation Authority, or CAA, which was established in 1992 under the Civil Aviation Act 1990, is charged with keeping the skies safe.
The role is significant in light of the work of the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, or TAIC, which has now released its report into the later 2015 helicopter crash that killed a pilot and six tourists at Fox Glacier.
Eerily reminiscent of the 1987 finding, the TAIC says there were "significant and repetitive non-compliance issues" with the operator's training system, and managerial oversight that warranted intervention long before the crash occurred.
The commission notes that the CAA "did not intervene and the operator was allowed to continue providing helicopter air operations".
Graeme Harris, the chief executive at CAA, who has been with the organisation for 14 years and has been its chief executive for about half of that time, admitted the watchdog was confused about its safety role, conceding that the authority failed in its regulatory role to scrutinise operators and keep the public safe.
Speaking to RNZ, he admitted, "Staff weren't clear whether their job was to help operators keep flying, or to be a strong regulator." In other words, staff thought they might have the job of keeping helicopter companies flying.
Not quite the objective of the authority, as stated by its founding legislation, which underlines safety and security. And anything even reminiscent of helping to keep operators in business is, unsurprising to most, nowhere to be found in the 11 functions legislated for this critical regulator.
You would think that someone at the helm for so long, with such a misguided staff under his watch would offer his resignation. But no mention of that.
The CAA's long-time chairman, Nigel Gould, in a hastily arranged press conference last week, said, "With the benefit of hindsight we can say" that our oversight of the relevant helicopter company, JP Scott, "should have been better."
Gould went on to soothingly say that much was being done to improve things, including better training for its flight operations inspectors. The two inspectors, who were the only ones carrying out the work in 2015, had left the employ of CAA and instead of two inspectors, the workforce had burgeoned to eight. Pity then that his chief executive hadn't got that memo and told RNZ that actually there were only five inspectors now employed, with a further three yet to be found.
Listening to CAA officials, one would think that the problems at CAA surfaced in 2015, rather than decades previously.
Nine years ago Auditor-General Lyn Provost had already given the authority a crushing thumbs down. She wrote: "Since 1997, my office has carried out four audits of the CAA ... the CAA reported publicly that it was making good progress in strengthening its certification and surveillance functions.
"However, in my view, the CAA has not made adequate progress in addressing our 2005 recommendations."
Included in the issues then were serious problems with the certification of operators by CAA, and inspectors' inconsistent responses to those who breached regulations. She went on to say that of 10 recommendations made, only one had been "fully addressed". Those recommendations included better training for inspectors.
It took the CAA until last year to get a clearance from the Audit Office and yet last week the CAA said better training of inspectors was still needed.
What is any reasonable person to make of this?
It is sobering to review, as I have done, the many helicopter crashes that have occurred in New Zealand. We reportedly have the largest global helicopter fleet per capita, with some 100 operators and 900 helicopters.
Over the past few decades, there have been many crashes and therefore many air investigations. It is not, of course, possible for the regulatory agency to be in the cockpit of every flight. But it is possible, and necessary that CAA undertakes its only role competently — the oversight of aviation safety and security.
CAA says it is now, finally, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, confident that there are no unreliable operators running scenic flights. But how confident should anyone be about the reliability of the CAA?