A FINE BALANCE
A former CAA safety inspector explains what investigators look for after an air crash.
Weight and balance issues are always top of mind when investigators examine the possible causes of helicopter crashes, says Tom Mccready, a former CAA safety inspector.
Think of a helicopter as a seesaw, he explains. The centre point is the mast on which the chopper’s rotor blades are mounted. With the engine in the back and fuel typically contained in the centre, the next key element of loading is the weight of the passengers.
Although lateral loading weight is usually not quite so crucial, forward and aft (rear) balance is. The heaviest passengers are therefore placed closest to the centre of the aircraft, the lightest in front. This is particularly important in modified Squirrels, where the single front passenger seat has been converted into a dual seat.
Mccready says the modification is a commercial decision, allowing one more paying customer on board. The extra weight on board can be compensated for by taking on less fuel. “Balance is more concerning than weight. It’s poor practice, but aircraft are sometimes flown slightly overweight. More care is needed flying them out of balance because it affects the pilot’s ability to control the aircraft.”
The apparently perfect conditions on the day of the Mt Alta crash might also have had a role to play.
“Light winds can cause you more trouble than moderate or heavy winds, because you’re not sure where they’re coming from. It can be puffing from all sorts of directions and you don’t really notice it. But when you’re coming in and you’re reasonably heavy – not overweight, but full – you can be coming into a mountainside and if you get three or four knots up your tail, it can really create problems because you are suddenly approaching that much faster than you’re intending to, especially when landing on snow.”
Mccready says he is surprised neither TAIC nor the CAA asked the surviving passengers to weigh themselves and their gear after the crash to get an accurate record of the loading.
Given the chopper received its airworthiness certificate the day before the crash, its engine would have been tested very recently, making engine failure, or a lowperforming engine, far less likely.
It is also unusual, he says, for passengers to be catapulted from an aircraft. Seatbelt failure is rare – “I’ve been to a lot of crashes and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one” – but it’s also possible that the men’s flailing limbs inadvertently hit the release mechanisms in the tumble- dryer conditions inside the chopper as it rolled down Mt Alta.
died. “The thing that you’re grateful for is the thing someone else is grieving.”
The survivors turned up as a group and spent hours with Adelle, who wanted to hear every detail; wanted to understand. In the first days, her Grey Lynn home was full of people looking after the family, cooking food she couldn’t eat, offering solace for a loss she still couldn’t comprehend.
After two or three weeks, she took some of the baking to the builders Jerome employed in his high-end construction company – he’d treated them like family. They were in expansion mode in the 25-year-old business before the crash, Adelle says, but she immediately had to shut down work worth $3 million, and later put the company into “hibernation”. “I didn’t have the strength to carry on.”
Over time, too, the support networks withered as friends returned to their own lives. “A lot of people just don’t understand, can’t deal with it. Some of my very best friends said they just didn’t know what to say.”
Then there is the miserable reality of solo motherhood in your 40s. “You no longer have your sounding board in life, that adult to check in with. I realised whenever the children and I went away somewhere, who would know if we had a crash on the way? Who’s going to check in and make sure we’re okay, who’s expecting us to come back?”
Last year, she fell three metres off a ladder in the hall and broke her arm, and her foot in 20 places. She was in hospital for a fortnight and the children had to be “farmed out” to friends, because she doesn’t have close family in New Zealand. “One of the hardest things is being asked by the ambulance staff who they should contact. Whenever you fill out a form for the kids, it’s ‘Who is their father? Do the mother and father live at the same address?’ It just gets you every time in so many little ways.”
Adelle works part-time for a hotel design and procurement company, and is offering two rooms in her home for rent with Airbnb. Money is tight now. “We used to always be out doing something – mountain biking, skiing, climbing… something adventurous. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but there are just things you can’t have and you can’t do any more.”
Two weeks before Christmas last year, she says, The Helicopter Line’s counsel approached CAA and expressed interest in “resolution discussions”, which required her to lay out the financial effect of the crash and the loss of Jerome on her life.
“Christmas is one of the hardest times of the year to navigate with the kids. I thought, ‘You’re asking me to stand here in my underwear telling you what I’m worth, what my emotional state is, and how it’s affected me?’ That’s how it felt. It felt like I was stripped bare. It just crushed me.”
Ultimately the discussions did not proceed. “My lawyer helped me draft something and came to a figure of what it had meant to us, which was apparently laughed at.”
In May, Adelle, along with Jerome’s close friends Warren Lawrence and Scott Feasey, flew to Wellington to take their concerns to TAIC, meeting formally with CEO Lois Hutchinson, chief accident inspector Captain Tim Burfoot and five other commissioners. “I want to know where the report is at,” Adelle told them. “It’s unacceptable to not know what’s going on. I feel like you’re stringing me along.”
In the meeting, she questioned why at that time, the only outstanding accident report yet to be finalised by TAIC from 2013 also involved a Helicopter Line chopper. “Why don’t The Helicopter Line reports seem to get done? Do they use dilatory tactics?”
The commissioners did not directly reply. “Our job is to get the right answer,”
“Whenever you fill out a form for the kids, it’s ‘ Who is their father? Do the mother and father live at the same address?’ It just gets you every time in so many little ways.” ADELLE BOX