Fatal chopper crash still pinned on mast bumping

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Crash site: Helicopter debris in the Lochy River basin in the Eyre Mountains, southwest of Queenstown. PICTURE: NZ POLICE

A pilot killed in a fatal helicopter crash near Queenstown in 2015 failed to tell authorities or his employer he had been treated for a mental health condition only months earlier.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (Taic) said last week it had reopened its inquiry into the crash after receiving new evidence about the mental health of Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, 42, of Wanaka.

However, it concluded it was “very unlikely” any medical factor contributed to the accident, and its original findings remained unchanged.

Combe was the instructor on a training flight when he and James Louis Patterson Gardner, 18, of Queenstown, died in the February 19 crash in the Lochy River valley, southwest of Queenstown.

In its original report, released on August 25 last year, the Taic identified “mast bumping”, resulting in the rotor blade hitting the cabin, as the cause.

Why the mast bump and resulting in-flight break-up had occurred could not be conclusively determined.

Six days after that report’s release, the Taic was told of Combe’s mental health issues by the coroner.

An additional report released by the Taic last Thursday said an investigation of his medical history found that in early 2014, while working as a pilot in Papua New Guinea, he had sought counselling from a psychotherapist.

He was diagnosed by his GP soon afterwards as suffering from depression and anxiety.

In August that year, after feeling a “marked improvement” in his mental health, he stopped taking medication and began working for Queenstown-based helicopter company Over The Top the following month.

But in his two applications to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for a medical certificate, he failed to declare the medications he had taken and did not mention any mental health conditions.

Interviews with the medical practitioners involved, and with people closely associated with Mr Combe,  indicated his mental demeanour had “significantly improved, if not fully returned to normal”.

Taic said a full disclosure of his treatment might not have prevented him from getting a medical certificate to fly but would probably have required him to undergo a more formal assessment.

It was “very likely” he was medically fit to fly when his most recent medical certificate was issued.

The Robinson R44 helicopter was operated by Over the Top at the time of the crash, although it was not a commercial flight.

Patterson Gardner was the only son of Over The Top owner Louisa Patterson.

In a media statement, Patterson says when Combe joined the company, he declared he met CAA requirements of being fit to fly as part of the company’s internal checks.

From that time until his death, he was observed as being “highly professional, competent and fit to fly”.

She had no knowledge of Combe’s private medical history.

“Had there been any concerns regarding his fit and proper person status, he would not have been entrusted with flying my clients or my son.”

Taic said there were “too many ways” for pilots to circumvent the CAA process for grounding them when they were medically unfit.

There was also a low awareness among medical practitioners of their duty to tell the CAA when they became aware a pilot was medically unfit to fly.

As a result, it had made recommendations to the CAA and the Ministry of Health aimed at addressing both issues.

Combe’s wife, Stephanie, could not be reached for comment.

Otago Daily Times