New Zealand investigators hope to find why skydiving plane crashed, killing 9

Sunday, September 5, 2010

NZ probes skydiving plane crash that killed 9

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Investigators expressed confidence Sunday that they will learn why an airplane carrying skydivers crashed in flames near a popular tourist spot in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, killing four Europeans and five New Zealanders.

Six investigators from New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission were traveling to the crash scene to begin inquiries along with a coroner, officials said.

The plane caught fire after takeoff Saturday from an airstrip at Fox Glacier on the country’s South Island, said Ian Henderson, a spokesman for local ambulance services. But some witnesses said the fire erupted when the plane crashed into a fence at the end of the runway after it failed to lift off safely.

Police said the foreign victims were Patrick Byrne, 26, of County Wexford, Ireland; Glen Bourke, 18, of Coburg, Victoria, Australia; Annita Kirsten, 23, of Germany; and Brad Coker, 24, of Farnborough, England.

The five New Zealanders included the pilot, Chaminda Senadhira, 33, of Queenstown and four dive-masters, Adam Bennett of Motueka, Michael Suter of New Plymouth, Christopher McDonald of Mapua and Rodney Miller of Greymouth.

Chief crash investigator Ian McClelland said a full site inspection would take place Monday.

While he wouldn’t speculate on possible causes, he said, “We are pretty confident we can identify most — if not all — of the contributing factors.”

If any airworthiness issues arise, from the investigation they will be referred to the Civil Aviation Authority “within hours”, McClelland said. The average time for release of a public report into a crash was between nine and 15 months, he noted.

Police said the aircraft was a Fletcher fixed-wing plane of a type designed and built in New Zealand. The planes are popularly used for scenic flights and skydiving in the area around New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Fox Glacier is about 90 miles (150 kilometers) from South Island’s main city, Christchurch, which was hit early Saturday by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

Fox Glacier township is a few miles from the glacier of the same name. The 8 mile- (13 kilometer-) long glacier is a picturesque tourist attraction in a national park on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

The fatal crash was the third in the region in the past 17 years.

In October 1993, nine people died in a plane crash when a twin-engine Nomad 22 crashed at nearby Franz Josef Glacier. In October 1994, seven people were killed when a Helicopter Line Squirrel helicopter on a sightseeing flight crashed in a mountainous area near Fox Glacier.

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