A former CAA safety in­spec­tor ex­plains what in­ves­ti­ga­tors look for after an air crash.

North & South - - Air Safety -

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

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