Apology over deadly Fox Glacier chopper crash

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
The bosses of a scenic helicopter that crashed at Fox Glacier and killed seven people have today apologised for the 2015 tragedy.

Queenstown pilot Mitch Gameren (28) died alongside six tourists 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 Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) suspended the Air Operating Certificate (AOC) of Alpine Adventures' managing director and owner James Patrick Scott, grounding his 15-strong helicopter fleet.

And in June 2016, the CAA charged Scott and quality assurance manager Barry Waterland's company, Aviation Manual Development (2009) Ltd under the Health and Safety in Employment Act legislation.

Scott and Aviation Manual Development earlier this year admitted failing to take all practicable steps to ensure no action or inaction of any employee while at work harmed any other person. The maximum penalty is a $250,000 fine.

The crash scene at Fox Glacier. Photo: NZ Police
The crash scene at Fox Glacier. Photo: NZ Police
Before today's sentencing at Christchurch District Court, Scott made a voluntary reparation payment of $125,000 to each of the seven families, totalling $875,000.

And this afternoon, he was fined $64,000 by Judge Kevin Phillips. Aviation Manual Development escaped a fine after the court heard it had no financial means to pay one.

Before the hearing got under way, the judge took the unusual step of reading aloud all of the victims' names before a moment's silence was observed.

Gameren died along with tourists, Australians Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29, along with Cynthia Charlton, 70, husband Nigel Charlton, 66, Andrew Virco, 50, and his partner Katharine Walker, 51, all from the UK.

Mrs Charlton's body was only found two years later by a tramper.

Some of the overseas family members dialled into today's court hearing via video link. Others were in the public gallery of the courtroom.

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
Mitch Gameren's father, Paul Gameren, speaking this evening, said the family were still seeking answers after the court case, and Mr Gameren believed the Civil Aviation Authority had "a hell of a lot to answer for".

""There needs to be some change."

The failures identified by the CAA "should have been picked up in their regular audits that they have", he said.

Laying charges after the accident had happened was like closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, he said.

He was awaiting the Transport Accident Investigation Commission Report into the crash, which was hopefully due out in the next couple of weeks, with interest.

"I think all [the judgement] has really done to us is we want more answers."

The family were "basically happy that the judge came to the right decision" when it came to imposing the $64,000 fine, and very happy with James Scott's apology, Mr Gameren said.

"I'm sure that he was devastated by the loss of the people on that flight" 

Earlier, Brett Gameren, a fellow pilot, described his brother as a passionate outdoorsman who had spent time flying in Botswana and search and rescue missions in Malaysia.

"Mitch is forever in our thoughts," he said in a victim impact statement. "We will love you forever."

A family friend of the Charlton family called for changes to health and safety rules in the New Zealand adventure tourism industry to prevent future tragedies.

Walker's brother, speaking from Britain, slammed what he saw as a "reprehensible" disregard for health and safety and "egregious, systematic failures" by the New Zealand aviation industry.

Judge Phillips stressed that the defendants had entered guilty pleas on the basis that their failings had not caused the crash and resulting tragedy.

"That must be kept clearly in mind," he said.

Judge Phillips asked Scott's lawyer Garth Galloway what would've happened that day, if the appropriate steps had been in place. But Galloway said it was an impossible question to answer.

He repeated the judge's comments that the charges Scott faced did not allege that he caused, or contributed, to the accident.

Scott, who has 30 years' experience in the aviation industry, today stood in court and told the families: "I'm very sorry for what happened."

Waterland, as company director and shareholder of Aviation Manual Development, "bitterly regrets what happened", lawyer Doug Taffs said.

His company will now be wound up, either voluntarily or involuntarily, destroying a lifetime of professional application and achievement in the aviation industry, Taffs said. He added that Waterland is not in a financial position to pay any fine.

The court heard that Scott and Aviation Manual Development had accepted eight practicable steps where they failed to ensure the safety of staff and passengers.

CAA lawyer Stephanie Bishop said their failure to comply with technical requirements, to have adequate training procedures, weight and balance policy, and proper supervision, had carried a risk of serious harm, namely a helicopter crash.

Scott's operation also had a history of training and supervision issues, Bishop said.

CAA chair Nigel Gould and deputy director for general aviation Steve Moore are expected to hold a press conference on the tragedy in Wellington on Monday.

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