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Inquiry Underway Into Cause Of Crash

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Helicopter crash scene. Pic: NZPA
Helicopter crash scene. Pic: NZPA

By Richard Bosselman for NZPA

Ohakea, April 25 NZPA - Conditions at the time of today's pre-dawn military helicopter crash, which claimed three lives, were such that the crews of the two accompanying machines were initially oblivious to the tragedy.

"The crews of the other aircraft, and air traffic control, realised that something had gone wrong, but it wasn't until sometime later that the tragedy was confirmed," the chief of the air force, Air Vice Marshall Graham Lintott, told a media briefing at Ohakea this afternoon.

The helicopter was flying in darkness and low cloud when it went down into a gully on the hills high above State Highway 1 near Pukerua Bay, about 40km north east of Wellington, shortly before 6am.

Along with two other Iroquois it was en route from Ohakea Air Base in Rangitikei region to Anzac Day services in Wellington. They were under normal air traffic control direction at the time, AVM Lintott said.

The three who died today were named as Flying Officer Daniel Stephen Gregory, 28, Flight Lieutenant Hayden "Muddy" Peter Madsen, 33, and crewman Corporal Benjamin Andrew Carson, 25.

All were based at Ohakea and have partners, but no children. They lived on, or near, the base.

The airforce has yet to name the sole survivor, who suffered serious injuries and is in Wellington Hospital.

AVM Lintott said it would be up to a full investigation to determine exactly what went wrong. A court of inquiry was being convened today.

"It is too early to speculate what happened on this early morning flight ... these things are very complex, and may include a number of factors, and we'll just take the time that is necessary to find out what happened this morning."

The crews of the other aircraft had not seen the doomed machine's final moments.

Although the two other helicopters had been flying with the ill-fated Iroquois in a formation of three before the crash, it is thought they had split up just before the incident, due to the conditions.

"Because of the visibility we believe they split up and went their individual way. One aircraft landed at Wellington and one at Paraparaumu and the third one ... well, we know what happened."

FO Gregory and Flt Lt Madsen were both pilots, but it was not known who was at the controls, he said.

AVM Lintott, who trained as an Iroquois pilot early in his career, said the flight was standard and though the weather was poor "we fly in poor weather all of the time.

"We do fly in inclement weather, and we have procedures for doing that. They followed, as far as I am aware, the appropriate procedures for this flight."

The crew would have been equipped with night vision goggles, which assist visibility in poor conditions, but whether they were wearing them was for the investigation to determine.

While crew were encouraged to wear the goggles in poor conditions, he did not believe it was an absolute requirement. "I think it is option but, again, the investigation will determine the appropriateness of the entire regime."

The crew was young, but that did not mean they were inexperienced.

"They would not have been authorised to undertake this flight if we did not have full confidence in their capabilities, their professionalism, their readiness, their health ...

"But obviously something went very, very wrong and the investigation will find out what."

He said the worst crash for the airforce in decades would affect all in the close-knit airforce family.

"Our family is strong, and close, and we will all feel this loss keenly."

It occurred almost 38 years to the day after the previous worst fatal accident, also the only other one involving airforce Iroquois helicopters since they started service in New Zealand in 1966. That incident occurred at Kaipara and also took three lives.

His voice trembling, AVM Lintott said today's crash was the worst news anyone could hear. He vowed the investigation would be thorough and professional.

That airforce aircraft did not carry black boxes would not be a hindrance to the investigation, which would consider all technical aspects of the aircraft, crew competency checks and training, and how the pre-flight briefing and planning was conducted.

"And, of course, we had two crews who can tell us what happened up to the point that they remember being in contact." There might also be evidence from the wreck's instrumentation.

"The accident investigators who are very adept at putting together this jigsaw puzzle I'm sure, in time, will be able to tell us what happened."

AVM Lintott said all deaths were tragic, but losing three people at one time was all the harder to take.

"We haven't had three fatalities in one accident for decades."

The dead men were "three wonderful young New Zealanders who this country can be truly proud ... they were all too young, and all with bright futures to look forward to.

"We mourn their loss as we support their loved ones, their friends and their colleagues."

It was especially poignant that the tragedy had occurred on a day dedicated to remembering those who lost their lives doing their duty at Gallipoli 95 years ago.

FO Gregory, originally of Auckland, began his service career with the NZ Army, serving as a rifleman and seeing overseas service in East Timor and Afghanistan. He joined the air force in 2006 as a officer cadet, graduating the following year, and joined No.3 Squadron last July.

Flt Lt Madsen was in his second term with the RNZAF. He served as an aircraft technician between 1996 and 2001, then re-enlisted two years later to become a pilot. He had been with No.3 Squadron since 2005 and took his present rank two years later. In 2008 he was awarded the NZ General Service Medal for service in East Timor and last year he received the NZ Operational Service medal.

Christchurch-born Cpl Carson had been in the air force since 2003, graduating as a aircraft mechanic. He began helicopter training early last year, and joined No.3 Squadron last August.

The airforce is in the process of replacing the ageing Iroquois, most of which have been in service since 1965, with eight NH90 utility choppers.

The French-made aircraft were due to arrive early this year and would be fully commissioned by 2013 as part of a $771 million deal.

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