Only child: Loui9sa Patterson and her son James Patterson Gardner


Over The Top helicopter company owner and chief pilot Louisa ‘Choppy’ Patterson was sitting at her desk in the company’s hangar when she had a ‘‘mother feeling’’ something was wrong.

It was early in the afternoon of February 19, 2015, and her 18-year-old son, James Patterson Gardner, had gone on a training flight with one of the company’s pilots, Stephen Combe, of Wanaka, to the Lochy River valley south-west of Queenstown.

Nearly two hours later, after a frantic aerial and ground search, her helicopter landed in the valley and she and Halfway Bay Station manager Gerry Kennedy got out and climbed up through the forest to where Kennedy’s farmhand had seen wreckage on the ground.

Giving harrowing evidence at a coronial inquest in Queenstown yesterday, Patterson said they met the farmhand and asked him if he’d seen the missing Robinson R44.

“He could not speak.

‘‘I realised he’d seen something awful.”

Kennedy asked her if she wanted to keep going.

“I said ‘I have to’.”

She walked towards the crash site, at first smelling aviation fuel.

She saw Combe first, lying on the ground against a tree.

Then she saw the hull of the R44, ‘‘lying destroyed on the ground’’.

‘‘I then came across James; he was lying in moss, close to the wreckage.’’

His blue eyes were open, and he was bleeding, which gave her hope he was alive.

‘‘It was as if he’d stepped out of the wreckage, taken some steps and laid down on the ground.’’

She wrapped her scarf around him and checked for vital signs.

She lay with him until emergency services people arrived just before 4pm.

Mid-air break-up: The crash site in the Lochy River Valley

Patterson took to the witness box on the third day of the inquest into the deaths of Patterson Gardner and Combe.

Helicopter expert Tom McCready, of Palmerston North, one of three experts commissioned to write a report for coroner Alexandra Cunninghame, told the inquest on Tuesday the wreckage of the R44 showed it had broken up in mid-air because of mast bumping and blade divergence, which caused one of its blades to hit the aircraft three times.

Patterson said she had a sense that something was wrong about 1.45pm.

Her son, who was leaving the next day for Sydney to begin an engineering degree, had taken his last opportunity to have a training flight before departing the resort, but was
running late for a 2pm haircut appointment.

She asked staff if they’d heard from the pair; GPS tracking data transmitted by the R44 every two minutes had ceased at 1.38pm.

Radio calls to the aircraft and text messages to the pair’s cellphones were not answered, so she headed off with pilot Brad Collier to begin the search.

Later that day, after search and rescue personnel joined those already at the crash site, she was ‘‘adamant’’ she wanted to take her son’s body home that day.

The men’s bodies were put in a farmer’s ute, with her son on her lap in the cab, and taken to a rescue helicopter, which flew them and her back to a hangar in Frankton.

Among those waiting there was a friend, Henry van Asch, to whom she said “I’ve brought my baby home in a body bag’’.

Heli expert stopped flying in Robinsons ‘years ago’

Won’t fly in Robinsons: Chopper expert Tom McCready


A chopper expert’s described a Robinson aircraft as the ‘‘scooter’’ equivalent of a  helicopter.

Tom McCready, who’s based in Palmerston North, told a coronial inquest in Queenstown’s court on Tuesday he prefers not to fly in one, saying it’s ‘‘cheaper’’ and ‘‘lighter’’ than others.

He’s one of three people commissioned to prepare a report for coroner Alexandra  Cunninghame, who’s investigating the fatal February, 2015, crash involving a Robinson R44 that broke up mid-flight, killing Steve Combe and James Patterson Gardner.

Over his 43-year career in the military and civil aviation industry, McCready says he’s worked on 38 fatal crashes — in his opinion, the wreckage of ZK-IPY showed the aircraft broke up due to mast bumping and blade divergence.

Lawyer Garth Gallaway, acting for Louisa Patterson, asked McCready whether Robinson 44s were cheaper in price than other helis.

‘‘Yes they are,’’ McCready said, ‘‘they’re for the masses to go flying helicopters relatively cheaply and I think that was their intention all along.’’

Robinson four-seaters are popular with commercial operators because they reduce the need to use a more expensive six-seater for a small group.

He says the ‘‘quite unique’’ Robinson design requires special training in pilot awareness.

They’ve been subject to a Civil Aviation Authority directive and are on a Transport Accident Investigation Commission watchlist.

McCready says he’s not aware of any other type of chopper which has the same limits placed on it by regulators.

Asked by Gallaway if he declined to fly in a Robinson, McCready replied ‘‘yes’’.

He says he made that decision ‘‘years ago’’ for ‘‘very practical reasons’’ when investigating accidents in Queenstown and Wanaka, where he could be dropped at an accident site in the early morning in fine weather but have to wait in a howling gale to be collected at 5pm.

‘‘So I always hired a more powerful helicopter that could take two or three people and gear and have power margins if things deteriorated.’’

He said he supported Patterson’s work to design ‘Eye In The Sky’ technology to capture video footage of what was going on in a helicopter cabin during flight.

Robinson Helicopter Company has chosen not to participate in the inquest.