Family of Wexford victim of air crash demand better safety measures

Family of Wexford victim of air crash demand better safety measures
New Zealand PM John Key

Relatives of an Irish tourist killed in an aircraft accident in New Zealand have joined others in writing to the country’s prime minister to urge him to bring in stronger safety enforcement.

The parents of the four tourists who died – Patrick Byrne, 26, of Co Wexford, 24-year-old web designer Bradley Coker, of Farnborough, Hampshire, England, Glen Bourke, 18, of Australia, and Annika Kirsten Schmidt, 23, of Germany - wrote to Prime Minister John Key calling for action.

The letter follows publication today of the report of the inquest into the nine deaths at Fox Glacier in one of New Zealand’s worst recent air crashes.

Skydive New Zealand’s Fletcher FU24 aircraft crashed shortly after take-off on September 4, 2010.

Coroner Richard McElrea said the cause may never be fully known, but unrestrained passengers shifting the balance in the overloaded plane probably contributed, news agency NZ Newswire reported.

The country’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission has ruled earlier that the crash was caused by an unbalanced, overloaded plane.

However, its Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) discounted this and said the cause was unknown.

Mr McElrea said the pilot did not have control of the plane at any time.

It was about 67kg overloaded, though this was still within the limits of the weight it should be able to carry.

Unrestrained passengers had moved backwards during take off, increasing the plane’s instability, but it was “likely that some other factor has also occurred”, Mr McElrea said.

Aviation law in New Zealand does not require passengers to be strapped in.

The plane burst into flames on impact, which has hampered investigations into equipment faults.

“It’s unlikely that the cause of the crash will ever be fully understood,” the coroner said.

“Something unusual, such as inadvertent pilot error or engine malfunction/mechanical failure, has occurred at take-off. This, coupled with the aircraft being overweight and loaded rearwards of its centre of gravity, is consistent with the evidence and has been the immediate cause of the tragedy.”

Mr McElrea said a conservative approach was needed to prevent a recurrence of the crash.

He recommended passenger restraints for tandem parachuting operations be “urgently considered for implementation across the industry” to prevent inadvertent load shift during take-off and landing, and that all Fletcher series aircraft or equivalent planes be restricted to carrying six people.

Besides the four who wrote the letter, the others who died were the pilot and four “tandem masters” – crew who assist passengers to undertake a parachute jump while attached to them.

The letter expresses sympathy for their families – “We are deeply conscious that there are other families who have also suffered the most grievous possible loss”.

They tell the Prime Minister that all have suffered “indescribable grief and anguish”, adding “it is only now that we have been able to come together in this way”.

They regard the findings of the accident report and the inquest “disturbing” and call on the prime minister to “take decisive and unequivocal action to reassure the world that New Zealand is a very safe place to visit”.

They add: “The reports make it clear that the CAA requires additional resources to ensure the monitoring and control required ... will your government ensure the necessary resources are provided?”

The letter also calls for significant changes to the way liability is dealt with in New Zealand, saying “the system is weighted against the victim”.

It calls for the concept of negligence to be introduced into the legal system and the introduction of a private accident insurance scheme for companies.

The families also call for Mr Key to outline his proposals to ensure the taking of controlled drugs plays no part in any accident.

Although the inquest discounted the role that this played, the accident report noted that two of the crew of the aircraft had taken controlled drugs in the period before the flight.

Mr Coker was on holiday around Asia-Pacific, Australasia and South America with his girlfriend, Hayley Denham, when the accident happened.

He was one of two groups of tourists who were to undertake a tandem skydive jump with an experienced “tandem master”.

The first four, including Mr Coker, boarded the aircraft and the other four waited on the ground for their turn, and witnessed the accident.

The aircraft took off and reached 400 feet before the pilot appeared to lose control and it nosedived to the ground.

New Zealand law does not allow companies to be sued in the courts for negligence and has no criminal offence of corporate manslaughter.

Compensation is decided by the New Zealand Accident Compensation Corporation, the sole and compulsory provider of accident insurance in New Zealand, which determined the death of Mr Coker merited compensation for the family of £2,744.

This compensation did not even cover the cost of the repatriation of his body to the United Kingdom.

The five crew who died were pilot Chaminda Senadhira, 33, and skydiving instructors Adam Bennett, 47, Christopher McDonald, 62, Rodney Miller, 55, and Michael Suter, 32.

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