Air crash pilot used cellphone
14 March 2004
By OSKAR ALLEY and AMIE RICHARDSON
Pilots face a crackdown on cellphone use while flying amid revelations the pilot in a crash that killed eight people had made a cellphone call just before the plane hit the ground.
An accident investigation into the June crash that killed pilot Michael Bannerman and seven Crop and Food Research staff is understood to blame pilot error for the crash.
One of the victims' families is now threatening to seek compensation from Bannerman's company, Air Adventures, as a result of the findings by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC).
Desmond Hogg, whose daughter Desma died in the crash, read the report yesterday and said he understood Bannerman's insurance would provide a multi-million-dollar payout.
The victims' families will meet investigators tomorrow to be briefed on the findings.
Hogg said he would pursue compensation. "Rather than go to court, I would be inclined to settle out of court," he told the Sunday Star-Times yesterday.
"That's how I would prefer to go."
The inquiry's findings - revealed to the Star-Times by aviation sources - show investigators blame the Air Adventures pilot for the crash near Christchurch in heavy fog which claimed the lives of some of this country's leading scientists.
The Crop and Food employees who died in the crash were: Desma Hogg, 42; Margaret Viles, 53; Alistair Clough, 37; Richard Finch, 41; Katherine Carman, 35; Andrew Rosanowski, 37; and Howard Bezar, 55.
Two other staff, Richard Barton and Tim Lindley, survived. Both men declined to comment on the findings. Bannerman's partner Janice Williams could not be contacted.
This newspaper has been told the investigation concluded Bannerman was flying too fast and erratically as he began his descent into Christchurch Airport on June 6 last year.
It is understood the report also reveals that the final moments of the tragedy were recorded by the pilot's cellphone - when he telephoned his home just before beginning the landing approach.
No conversation took place but the call was recorded on the home telephone's voicemail and later retrieved by Williams, his partner.
She listened to the first minute of the message - which only featured the noise of an aircraft flying - and then deleted it, unwittingly avoiding hearing the sound of the crash.
The report's findings are due for public release on Tuesday, but an aviation source told the Star-Times the findings included:
* If the call was deliberately made (rather than accidentally speed dialled as had happened before), it was unsafe, irresponsible and would have posed a severe distraction if he tried to listen to it during the approach. He had a "perhaps cavalier" attitude to using his phone while flying.
* He approached the landing too fast and was flying too low, "not coping easily", and struggled to maintain the correct glide path for the descent.
* The pilot had flown most of the journey on auto-pilot but reverted to manual-flying for the landing in bad weather, making it more difficult.
* Air Adventures had been subjected to a spot inspection by the Civil Aviation Authority in 2000 after pilots complained they were made to fly in unsuitable conditions.
* Bannerman had been investigated by CAA over previous problems landing at Christchurch.
The TAIC report would recommend that CAA educate pilots about the dangers of cellphone use while flying, one source said.
Investigators had found that the seven passengers who died were killed instantly when the Piper Chieftain slammed into trees shortly before hitting the ground about half a nautical mile from the runway. The plane's right wingtip clipped a poplar tree about 3m above the ground, closely followed by the left side of the aircraft also hitting trees. That impact sheared off the left wing.
The two survivors, who told investigators Bannerman used his cellphone during the flight, lived because they were seated at the front of the plane, one in the co-pilot's seat.
An emotional Hogg, 75, said the TAIC report had confirmed his fears pilot error was to blame and the cellphone use could have affected the aircraft's instrumentation.
"The report said that could definitely alter things. The cellphone may have altered the plane's glide path."
He had yet to speak to other victims' families but thought they would seek compensation from the insurance payout.
Time had not healed the pain of his daughter's death.
"The rest of the family are doing all right. The biggest worry is that the investigation has been drawn out so long. It's nine months since it happened."
Andrew Rosanowski's widow, Thereza, saw the report on Friday but was reluctant to comment on its criticisms of Bannerman.
"It's a milestone I have to get through in my life without my partner," she said.
"I have two little children (Elsa, 2, and Sophie, 10 months) and I'm just living day to day. I have just lost so much.
"My priority is my children. I'm looking at it philosophically. The report is there to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen to anybody else."
Howard Bezar's sister Jane had not seen the report but said her brother was still in her thoughts.
"I never have a single day that I'm without him," she said.
"I still wake at 3am and walk round the house and talk to him."
Bezar's wife, Christine, declined to comment.
Bannerman was Air Adventures' chief executive and chief pilot. His partner is listed as the sole director of the company.
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