Pilot died during ‘advanced manoeuvre’

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A Queenstown paraglider was likely killed instantly after he became entrapped in his paraglider and crashed on to a roof at Queenstown Primary School last year.

Coroner David Robinson’s formal written findings into the death of Benjamin Thomas Gould Letham, 26, were released today.

He found Letham, a commercial paragliding pilot, died from multiple massive traumatic injuries on April 22 after having insufficient momentum to complete an eighth “infinity loop” before landing.

Letham, who had been contracted to GForce Paragliding for three years, had amassed more than 345 flight commercial tandem flight hours with the company, completing 2016 flights in total.

“He was regarded by those who knew him as a highly-skilled, highly-capable and very talented pilot,” the findings said.

He also flew extensively recreationally and held an advanced (PG3) paragliding rating and a commercial tandem rating (PGTC) issued by the New Zealand Hang Gliding and Parachute Association, which operates under delegation from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Robinson said if there was not sufficient work for GForce-rostered pilots, they were able to go off-duty and undertake solo recreational flights.

Letham was rostered on duty on April 22; however, company chief executive Gavin Taylor described the morning as “not overly busy”, so Letham went on a personal flight.

He took off from Bob’s Peak and intended to land on the grounds of the Robin’s Road school.

During the flight he completed about seven infinity loops – an aerobatic manoeuvre in which the pilot causes himself and the canopy to rotate around a horizontal axis as if somersaulting.

While attempting to complete an eighth Letham appeared to have insufficient momentum to complete the loop.

“Instead, he fell into the canopy, which was at that point below him.

“He became entrapped within the canopy … it collapsed and could no longer function as an airfoil.

“Either due to that entrapment, or the proximity of the ground, he was unable to deploy a reserve chute.”

His injuries were not survivable.

A CAA investigation found Letham had been practicing the “advanced … competition-style manoeuvre” for about three months and had been witnessed by other experienced pilots to be competent in performing it.

However, the authority considered given the number of loops he carried out and the cumulative loss of height, Letham had insufficient height to recover or deploy his reserve chute.

The CAA investigator said three revolutions would be the norm in a “standard example of a competition event” and Letham’s continuum of about seven over a short distance and height did not provide sufficient room to recover from a loss of control.

Included in the CAA’s recommendation was for a pre-flight assessment of manoeuvres to be carried out, and the amount conducted, be discussed with peers to provide an “objective risk assessment”.

Robinson directed his findings be provided to the NZHGPA for dissemination among members.