Three years after a chopper crash near Wanaka killed Auckland construction company boss Jerome Box, investigators are yet to determine the cause. It’s a case the Transport Accident Investigation Commission says is important for helicopter safety in New Ze
Three years after a fatal chopper crash near Wanaka, investigators are yet to determine the cause. Donna Chisholm asks why it’s taking so long.
You get the phone call that upends your life on a Saturday afternoon at the suburban Auckland mall where you’re taking your kids to the movies.
Where are you? your friend asks. Stay there, she says, I’ll come to you.
By now, you know this is bad, but not how bad. You keep asking questions, but you don’t believe the answers.
A heli-skiing chopper has crashed on a bluebird day near Wanaka. Seven men are on board, including your friend’s husband and yours. Six survive. Your husband is the only one who’s not coming home.
You don’t remember much after that moment, apart from the animal wail of your 12-year- old daughter breaking down beside you and the bewildered look of disbelief on the face of your 10-year-old son.
Adelle Box still struggles to believe that she is this woman. It’s been three years since her husband Jerome, 52, was killed, but with the official investigation into the accident about to enter its fourth year, her faith in the system that is meant to tell her why he died, and
what might be done to save other lives, has gone.
Her life, and that of her children, will never be the same. “When Jerome died, we found ourselves at ground zero. The future has had to be rewritten.”
Dave Bensley is filming on his iphone when the Airbus AS350 chopper (or “Squirrel”) carrying him and his mates descends near the 2339m summit of Mt Alta. August 16, 2014 is a clear, windless day, so there’s a frisson of tension when pilot Dave Matthews appears to decide against landing the first time and circles again before making his final approach.
The pilot’s already told them this is the first time he has flown this particular machine, which is new to the service after a conversion in the United States from a medi-vac chopper.
Documents show the helicopter received its airworthiness certificate from the Civil Aviation Authority just the day before, so this trip is probably its first commercial outing in New Zealand.
The short hop to Mt Alta, about 20km north-west of Wanaka, is the group’s third flight of the day; they’ve already done one run in perfect conditions near Treble Cone and spirits on board are high.
“We seem to be coming in fast,” says Bensley, development manager of Auckland’s Britomart Precinct. “I’m going, ‘Ahhh, we’ve got a problem, a real problem now.’ There was just silence. I can’t remember any talking at all. I can remember thinking, ‘It’s all over.’
“We collect a ridge with the rotor, and the nose of the chopper head-plants and the back flips over, does a full somersault and flips out. The whole bottom of the body just rips off, so the only thing left is the egg with the seats.”
The rotor blades, too, are wrenched off, leaving a gaping hole in the chopper’s canopy as the machine begins a 300m end- over- end roll down the mountainside.
G-forces catapult out four of those on board. The first is property company CFO Craig Peirce, who lands on his backside in the snow, breaking his back in three places. Next comes Greg Mcleod, a flooring company director, who is fired out about 10m down the slope from Peirce, and is bleeding heavily from a head wound. Heli-ski guide Mark Sedon comes out next. He has spinal fractures and is hunched on his hands and knees, but sends out a mayday call on the radio he’s carrying.
Pilot Matthews, ejected another 10m down, is also bleeding from a head injury.
“We are rolling at a real pace,” says Bensley. His iphone is flung from his grasp. The phone, and the valuable footage it contains, is never recovered despite intensive searches.
“It’s quite black and I think it’s all done. I’m conscious the whole way down. I see the sky, because there’s nothing above me, it’s all open now. I can’t believe I’m still alive. The G-forces are so full- on your body is absolutely in contortion. I focused on another sport I do: surfing. When you get slammed by a big wave, you try to go deep. If you relax, you’ll survive it. If you panic, you’ll die. So that’s what I did. I said to myself, just relax. So I relaxed all the way down the mountain for 1000 feet. And every time it turns over, my head goes in the snow.
“Then, at the end of the rolling, I’m going, ‘How does this end? Are we stopping or are we falling off a cliff here?’ Then we did start to slow down and finally stop and I thought, ‘Please don’t stop with my head in the snow.’ But it didn’t. It came up, rocked, and came back on the side.”
By the time the chopper comes to rest, only two men are left belted in their seats – both in the middle of the chopper: tech company CEO David Reid, who was in the centre-front seat next to the pilot; and Bensley, to the left of where Box had been seated directly behind the pilot. Box is nowhere to be seen.
Bensley unclips his seatbelt and falls into the snow. “The place just stinks of aviation fuel. I thought, ‘This isn’t over – it’s going to explode.’ All I know is from the movies. I’m thinking, ‘It’s going to blow and I’m not out of this yet.’ I race around and unclip Dave. He’s sort
“I’m conscious the whole way down. I see the sky, because there’s nothing above me, it’s all open now. I can’t believe I’m still alive. The G-forces are so full-on your body is absolutely in contortion.”
of conscious. I grab him and I’m mothered, but adrenalin is racing through my body. I just pull him as fast as I can about 30 or 40 metres away. Then I collapse because I’m in so much agony.”
Bensley has neck and back injuries and Reid has broken ribs and a dislocated shoulter.
Lying on his back in the snow, Bensley thinks they’ve all escaped the wreck, and are far enough away to be safe should it explode. The men flung out at the top and those below shout to each other and there’s a head count. Box is missing.
“I see a little thing of orange sticking out next to the wreck,” says Bensley. Box is trapped by the leg. “Jerome had his orange jacket on. I get up and just hightail it back to the chopper to pull him out. I get to him and I don’t try to pull him out initially. I just turn him over and unclip his jacket to try to do CPR.”
Trained in resuscitation, Bensley realises from almost the first breath that his mate is gone. “There’s no life in him. When I blow into his mouth… it isn’t a sound you normally hear when you do that. But I’m still not believing it. I still think he’ll come back. I’m pulling with all my might to get him out and trying to push the chopper off his leg.”
Peirce by this time has made it to the site. Despite the decompression injuries to his back, which aren’t diagnosed for another three days, he’s sledded down the mountain on an avalanche shovel, bringing with him the first- aid kit, which had somehow landed next to him in the snow.
Matthews, too, has reached the site. He hits the kill switch on the helicopter’s electrics, making the fuselage safer.
Bensley refuses to give up on Box. “By the time it takes Craig to get down, I’m still there. They end up pulling me off him. I’m not letting anyone else near him. They say, ‘Dave, you need to get out of here. We all need to get out of here.’”
People respond to tragedy and grief in one of two ways, Adelle Box reckons. You either don’t function at all, or you go into overdrive. You sleep a lot, or you don’t sleep at all. She didn’t sleep. Still doesn’t.
But instead of pacing the floors in those sleepless hours, Box went to work, poring over spreadsheets and specifications, questioning investigators and doing her own sleuthing. “I have a slightly technical mind – I helped my dad rebuild my first car motor. I can’t help myself.”
Slowly, over the course of months, she learned about helicopters, and what makes them fall out of the sky. She went to inspect the wreck in a Wellington warehouse, asked why the seatbelts came adrift and why the engine hadn’t been examined. She pored over flight manuals and flight data, fuel loads and wind direction. She questioned authorities about all manner of things. She
“They end up pulling me off him. I’m not letting anyone else near him.” DAVE BENSLEY
The year 2015 was a very bad one for TAIC. In October, an independent report highlighted shortcomings with its investigation into a September 2010 crash of a converted topdressing plane, again in Fox Glacier, which killed eight parachutists and the pilot. TAIC originally found weight and balance issues caused the crash but subsequently changed its findings, saying it was unlikely either was the primary cause. The independent report said mechanical failure couldn’t be ruled out, because of TAIC’S decision to allow key parts of the wreckage to be buried days after the chopper went down.
TAIC had released the report of its investigation in May 2012 – just 18 months after the crash. Stung by the later criticisms, the commission could well have decided to proceed more cautiously – and slowly – in future.
North & South has learned a draft report of the Mt Alta investigation has been released to The Helicopter Line for comment. But no one has told Adelle Box that. “The shutters have gone up,” she says.
In July, TAIC released to North & South a list of air incident investigations that remain outstanding. The Mt Alta crash is the oldest unresolved event. The report for a 2013 Helicopter Line crash, a non-fatal landing collision at Tyndall Glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park, was released on July 27. TAIC said it couldn’t exclude the possibility that the pilot of the second chopper to land misjudged his approach, causing the accident. It excluded technical, helicopter performance and other environmental factors.
The last photograph of Jerome Box was taken less than 30 minutes before the crash. He’s with Sedon, and his mates Reid and Mcleod, in a valley near Treble Cone, as they wait for the chopper to take them to Mt Alta. In it, he is pointing to the place where he would die.
If there is any comfort for Adelle and their children, Briana and Xavier, it’s the joy on his face that day.
Box lived for trips like this one, indulging his sporting passion with his closest mates. An adventurer who thrived on the adrenalin rush, he was the instigator of the heli-skiing day – a highlight of the friends’ annual trip to Queenstown. That year, 10 of them, mostly from the congregation at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Auckland, made the trip. Five paid around $1000 each for the heli-skiing; the others spent the day skiing at Treble Cone.
IT and telecommunications executive Ben Green was the organiser for the long weekend. They had decided who’d go on the chopper over nachos and a beer by the outside fire at the Cardrona pub the day before. “I was keen,” says Green, “but there were only seats for five. I’d have gone if there were six.”
He remembers looking up at the helicopters flying overhead as the landbound five took a lunch break at Treble Cone. “It was an absolutely stunning day.
• OCTOBER 2013: One helicopter clips another on landing at Tyndall Glacier, Mt Aspiring National Park. Both are THL choppers. Thirteen people are airlifted from the glacier; the pilot of the descending helicopter suffers serious head injuries.
• JANUARY 2014: A THL chopper tips in snow on Richardson Glacier, near Mt Cook, while attempting to land. The five on board, including four overseas tourists, are unhurt and there is no TAIC investigation.
• AUGUST 2014: Jerome Box, 52, of Auckland, is killed when a THL Squirrel AS350 helicopter crashes on landing at Mt Alta, rolling 300m down the slope.
• SEPTEMBER 2016: A THL Squirrel AS350 rolls while attempting a snow landing above Arrowtown. An Australian tourist suffers leg injuries, but four other passengers, also tourists, are unhurt.
The Transport Accident Investigation Commission and Civil Aviation Authority both investigate air crashes, but for different reasons. TAIC’S role is to determine cause, but not to apportion blame, while the CAA has a health and safety prosecutorial role, in line with its responsibility for aviation safety and security.
Former CAA investigator and now private air accident investigator Tom Mccready says while the agencies are meant to co-operate, “sometimes they get at loggerheads with each other”.
Under the TAIC Act, the commission is in charge when an accident is under investigation – in fact, the CAA must seek TAIC’S permission to carry out a parallel investigation. TAIC can also decide the extent of CAA’S access to the wreckage and crash site. CAA must lay any health and safety charges within 12 months of the crash.
TAIC was founded in 1990, initially to investigate air accidents only, but by 1995, its jurisdiction had been extended to rail and marine accidents.
The CAA’S first accident investigation was published in 1998. Mccready says its investigations unit was launched as a result of TAIC deciding not to look into some crashes. TAIC investigates only those accidents that it believes have significant implications for transport safety.
Mccready says although three years and longer can seem an inordinate length of time for an inquiry, investigators are handling multiple cases. He says there can also be “a lot of politics going on in the background that we don’t appreciate”.
chief commissioner Jane Meares told them, “and if there is any reason why this report is taking so long, it is because we are endeavouring to find the right answer.”
She said new lines of inquiry had opened up and were being reviewed, but the commission was conscious of the timing of the report’s release, with the health and safety prosecution of The Helicopter Line due to begin in November. “We must be mindful of the prejudice that might result were we to release a report at an inappropriate moment.”
Feasey told them he was disgusted with TAIC’S performance. “I’m in the construction industry and I get better responses when there are accidents in construction. We run a better show. Our reports come out quicker. Our families are not tormented or taken through the same grief.
“Please,” he told them, “give Adelle responses. Please support her.”
The Helicopter Line director Mark Quickfall told North & South that perceptions the company was trying to stall the investigation were wrong. “We are working hard, being open and upfront. This is a tragic accident and
as much as anyone we want to know what caused it. We have co- operated fully with TAIC on everything. I certainly understand Adelle’s frustrations – they are probably equal to our own. [ The time being taken]... it’s disappointing for everybody. We have full sympathy for Adelle Box and the passengers who were on the flight.”
However, he says it’s in the company’s and the wider industry’s interests to establish the cause “of this accident and tragedy”.
“We have conducted heli- skiing in the Southern Alps for over 35 years, frequently landing at the Mt Alta site. We are as keen as any party to understand what TAIC believe occurred. Based on our own investigation, THL has a view on causation and taken steps to address what we believe was a key contributing factor. Because the matter is before the court, I’m unable to discuss this aspect further.”
He says he cannot comment on many of the other issues raised because of the pending case, which also restricted the company’s ability to deal with the family. “The laying of charges against an organisation means, based on legal advice, very little interaction with victims is possible. This seems to be a regrettable consequence of an adversarial system.”
The court case was due to be heard in March this year but was adjourned at the eleventh hour when a key witness, a contractor at The Helicopter Line, went overseas. Quickfall says The Helicopter Line was not to blame for the witness’s failure to appear. “The CAA failed to tell him that he was re- quired as a witness. It did not subpoena him or advise him when the hearing date was, and it transpired that he was in Alaska at the time of the hearing.” The CAA declined to comment because the case is before court.
Helicopter Line choppers have been involved in four snow- landing incidents since 2013. After the most recent, in September 2016, then- CEO Jeff Staniland said procedures would be reviewed.
Quickfall said the company carried out a “total review of all our operating procedures. You always need to look at yourself. We work hard day in and day out to avoid any accidents or incidents and we reviewed the whole business, from governance, to hardware we operate, our training, right the way through. Did we discover anything material to this case? No, nothing material, but we have made changes to our operations – they were more tweaks than anything.”
TAIC CEO Hutchinson told North & South the Mt Alta crash “is an important case. It’s important for the helicopter fleet for New Zealand and the world. Everything we do and say affects not only people in our locality, but has fleet-wide implications, so there is a very strong threshold for ensuring those affected globally are heard and we get it right.”
She says a “multitude of parties” are involved, and an investigation of three years or more isn’t that unusual.
“I know Adelle is frustrated by the length of time, but the commission’s task is to dive deep into the events it looks at. It has to follow procedural rules and be very sure natural justice requirements are met.”
TAIC is legally bound not to speak about active cases, she says, “so it gets very difficult for us to explain”.
“It’s like, fair point, why does it take so long, but there is no deep mystery in it. The commission is trying to do its job and make sure it’s kicked every stone, understands what’s going on, and at the same time meets its statutory obligations for natural justice.”
TAIC aims to have straightforward cases completed within two or two-anda-half years and “by and large we are achieving that”.
She says as many as 30-35 TAIC investigations in all three transport modes are open at any one time and can be complicated when interested parties are overseas. In the Mt Alta case, the helicopter is Frenchmanufactured, and the makers are automatically parties to the inquiry. She says she’s not aware of delaying tactics by The Helicopter Line or others.
Internationally, independent investigators aim to complete inquiries within a year, where possible. “But thereafter, if that’s not possible, at least keep those affected informed, and get at the truth. The focus is on finding the answers.”
Although Adelle Box supplied the weights of those on board to TAIC in March 2015, more than six months after the crash and before TAIC sought the information, Hutchinson says that didn’t mean they would never have been taken. However, she accepted it was a “fair point” that the sooner they were taken after the accident, the better.
TAIC told Adelle Box early this year that its report should be finalised by November. In May, she was told it “may not even be this year”. It’s becoming a bit of a pattern. In 2015, the commission said it should be ready by early 2016 – but in 2016, the date shifted to early 2017. The commission no longer gives estimated release dates. “They made a rod for our back,” says Hutchinson.
Adelle Box, meanwhile, worries at what she sees as a lack of transparency, and the risk that lives may be lost because reports aren’t completed more promptly.
“I’ve been very on to it for a long time. I was so full of hope that the system would uncover what had happened,” she says. “But it does get to the point where it breaks you. And that’s where I am. I just feel broken by it.” +
The chopper at Queenstown Airport before the fatal flight.
Adelle Box says she’s lost faith in the crash investigation.
Devoted dad Jerome Box with his children Briana and Xavier in 2011.
Investigators at the crash site wherejerome Box died in 2014.
Help reaches the crash site on Mt Alta. Pilot Dave Matthews, his head bandaged, sits with one of the rescuers.