Report blames New Zealand skydive plane crash that killed nine on overloading

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Two years after a skydiving plane crashed in New Zealand, killing all nine on board, a report has blamed overloading for what was the nation's worst air accident for seventeen years. The modified aircraft was unable to handle a full complement of eight passengers.

An FU-24, from file. This aircraft is performing its design role as an agricultural plane, but the accident aircraft had been converted for skydiving.

Five locals and four foreign tourists died when the FU-24 crashed on takeoff at Fox Glacier. Eyewitness accounts said the plane took off earlier than normal, pitching up steeply before falling from a high of about 100m (330ft). It struck the ground nose-first.

The report by New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC), after an investigation led by Ian McClelland, says the aircraft did not accumulate sufficient airspeed before it took off. It further notes that the plane's centre of gravity was far to the rear. The plane had been converted three months prior from an agricultural aircraft and this had not been performed well, according to the TAIC.

TAIC go on to say the Civil Aviation Authority failed to spot paperwork discrepencies when approving the modified aircraft. "As a result the aeroplane was being flown outside its loading limits every time it carried a full load of eight parachutists," said the report. It was "an accident waiting to happen".

This is an accident that no pilot should ever forget

—Graeme Harris, NZ's head of civil aviation

Graeme Harris, the nation's head of civil aviation, described weight checks as "basic airmanship, taught to every student pilot" and noted all pilots are responsible for conducting them. "It is very sad that a critical element of pre-flight planning, which should be second nature to any pilot, appears to have been done so poorly. This is an accident that no pilot should ever forget."

The local victims were Adam Bennett, 47, Michael Suter, 32, Christopher McDonald, 62, and Rodney Miller, 55, who were professional skydivers, and pilot Chaminda Senadhira, 33. The foreign victims were Irishman Patrick Byrne, 26, Australian Glen Bourke, 18, German Annita Kirsten, 23, and Briton Brad Coker, 24.

Chris Coker, Brad Coker's father, has urged NZ Prime Minister John Key to increase regulation. The local Civil Aviation Authority has already decreed no FU-24 should carry more than six individually weighed passengers as a result of the crash, and last year introduced a law aimed at tightening up adventure flight regulation. The stricter rules came into effect earlier this month.

The TAIC report reminded pilots to calculate weights individually for each aircraft, as even two planes of the same model can differ. It further notes aircraft modification is "a safety-critical process that must be done in strict accordance with rules and guidelines and with appropriate regulatory oversight".