Choppy’s eye

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A Queenstown helicopter legend’s developed a product which’ll revolutionise air accident investigations and potentially negate the need for coronial inquests.

‘Eye In The Sky’ is the brainchild of Over The Top helicopter boss Louisa ‘Choppy’ Patterson, helped by two of her senior pilots, James Forward and Brad Collier, and chopper guru Tom McCready.

Patterson says it’s a “game-changer”.

She had already started dev-eloping the product before her son, James Patterson-Gardner, 18, and experienced OTT pilot Stephen Combes, 42, were tragically killed in a Robinson R44 crash in February, 2015.

A Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report found there had been an in-flight break-up but it couldn’t say why. If an audio-visual device had been fitted, that question would have been answered.

While other products take photos in a cockpit, the tiny, lightweight gadget records high-def, wide-angle video and audio; GPS data, with limitations; and information on speed, altitude and position; pitch, roll and yaw.

And unlike a black box, fitted to aircraft tails, Eye In The Sky records “the nuances of what’s happening in the cockpit”.

“A photograph is worth a thousand words, but a video is priceless,” she says.

Coroner Brigette Windley echoed TAIC’s comments in her findings, released last week, into the death of Te Anau-based chopper pilot William Bruce Andrews.

He was killed in a Hughes 500 crash in Fiordland on his 49th birthday in December, 2013.

She found it “impossible” to determine an exact cause.

During that inquest, last November, McCready, a highly-regarded aviation accident investigator, said if that chopper had Eye In The Sky fitted “we wouldn’t be discussing half the things we have here”.

“Inquests like this – I’ve been here before, where we’re just going round, and round, and round with possible causes.

“You end up with very good people in the same courtroom all getting annoyed with each other, when really, there’s no answer because of a lack of information.

“If we’d had one of those in this aircraft … it would tell you most things.”

Patterson says it’s an issue that’s been around for decades.

“In fact, when I was 10 years old my father was killed in a light aircraft and, the same thing, he was a passenger and there were no answers as to why the aircraft took the path that it did.

“So, as well as being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, so to speak, since we’ve been trialling it we’ve found all of these other attributes that can raise the safety bar.”

They include helping engineers diagnose faults – intermittent or otherwise – faster, which also saves money, and pilot training.

Proceeds from the sale of the device – retailing for US$4400 (NZ$6600) – will go to the James PG Foundation, established in Patterson’s son’s memory, to help people aged between 17 and 25 reach their full potential.

Trustees are James’ cousins and friends.

The gadget, which can also be fitted to ship bridges and submarines, is in the final phase of testing.

Pre-orders are already in from the United States and Canada, and the Robinson factory’s also interested, “which is fabulous”.

It’ll go to the Civil Aviation Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration, in the US, for consideration as an official flight data recorder.

It’s unclear if official recognition means information recorded can’t be used for prosecution.

The device will be manufactured in New Zealand, “which we’re very excited about”, she says.

Patterson hopes it’ll be in production by the end of this year.

“I’ve been really excited about the fact that it has been used in such a positive way, to raise the safety bar, and I commend the coroner and TAIC for suggesting that these devices need to be looked at.

“Five years ago people would have gone, ‘we don’t want anyone else to know what we’re doing in the cockpit’, but times have changed. There are cameras everywhere … with health and safety becoming more prominent, we’ve all become more accountable for our actions.”

Arguably the biggest benefit, though, will be providing answers and giving closure to those left behind much faster.

tracey.roxburgh@scene.co.nz