Fox Glacier chopper crash pilot was under-trained

The inexperience of a Queenstown pilot and poor weather conditions have been blamed for a helicopter crash which killed seven people in Fox Glacier.

Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) released the findings of its investigation into the 2015 crash today, saying pilot Mitch Gameren lacked the experience or training required to safely fly the helicopter in such an operation.

Mitch Gameren was killed when the helicopter crashed on Fox Glacier in 2015. Photo: Supplied via...
Mitch Gameren was killed when the helicopter crashed on Fox Glacier in 2015. Photo: Supplied via NZ Herald

Mr Gameren, 28, and six tourists were killed when the Alpine Adventures' AS350 Squirrel helicopter he was flying on a scenic trip plunged into a deep crevasse in the glacier on November 21, 2015.

The tourists were Australians Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29, as well as Cynthia Charlton, 70, husband Nigel Charlton, 66, Andrew Virco, 50, and his partner Katharine Walker, 51, all from the UK.

The TAIC was also critical of the Civil Aviation Authority for failing to properly follow-up after it identified significant  non-compliances in the operator Alpine Adventures' training system and managerial oversight.

The crash scene at Fox Glacier. Photo: NZ Police
The crash scene at Fox Glacier. Photo: NZ Police
"The helicopter operator’s pilot training system did not fully comply with Civil Aviation rules. It did not adequately prepare the pilot for their role and responsibilities.

"The operator had been allowed to continue providing helicopter air operations with little or no intervention from the CAA, despite the CAA having identified significant non-compliances with the operator’s training system and managerial oversight," the report's summary said.

TAIC said the helicopter struck the glacier with high forward speed at a high rate of descent. Mechanical failure was unlikely to be the cause of the crash.

It identified a number of failures with the way the helicopter was operated saying:

  • Its all-up weight was almost certainly more than the maximum permitted weight.
  • Local weather on the day was unstable, unsuitable for a scenic flight, and very likely frequently below CAA cloud and visibility requirements.
  • The pilot’s perception of height above the glacier was very likely affected by one or more of flat light conditions; cloud; rain and snow; and windscreen condensation.
  • The pilot had not been properly trained and did not have the appropriate level of experience expected under the operator’s categorisation scheme for a senior pilot in this type of operation.
  • The operator’s pilot training system was ill-defined, not fully compliant with CAA rules, and insufficient oversight enabled the pilot to be assigned roles and responsibilities without the proper training and experience.

Taic said well before the Fox Glacier accident, it highlighted the importance of correcting recurrent deficiencies to prevent accidents in future.

To address this, in 2014, it recommended that the CAA should always make a formal finding when an audit identifies a serious safety issue; and strictly require holders of air operator certificates to correct deficiencies.

Mitch Gameren's family (from left) - brother Brett, father Paul Gameren and mother Adrienne Bray....
Mitch Gameren's family (from left) - brother Brett, father Paul Gameren and mother Adrienne Bray. Photo: ODT
Despite the CAA responding positively to the recommendation, its inspectors overlooked and did not raise findings on significant non-compliances with civil aviation rules by the operator of the accident helicopter.

This lack of action brought up wider concerns.

"The commission is concerned that there could be a wider safety issue whereby other civil aviation operators during the same period could have significant non-compliances that were not identified or not resolved."

To address this wider safety issue the Taic recommended CAA independently review its past surveillance activities.

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