Aviation industry devastated by deaths

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The aviation industry is in shock after losing two of its ”extended family” yesterday.

Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, 42, of Wanaka, and James Louis Patterson Gardner, 18, of Queenstown, were killed when the helicopter in which they were travelling crashed in the Lochy River basin in the Eyre Mountains, southwest of Queenstown. 

Patterson Gardner was the son of Over the Top chief executive officer Louisa (Choppy) Patterson, who had operated the Queenstown helicopter company for more than 26 years without accident.

The company’s website states it is the only helicopter operator in the resort to have been consistently awarded the International Helicopter Operator Safety Award.

The site says her team’s commitment to safety and excellence have been top of the company’s priority list since the company lifted off in 1986.

Patterson Gardner was fresh out of school and was believed to have been preparing to go to university.

Patterson Gardner knew Prime Minister John Key and had posted to his Facebook page a photo of the pair together at the driving range overlooking Queenstown.

Key paid tribute to the pilot last night: “It was a privilege to meet James on a number of occasions. He was a fine young man.

“It will be devastating for the family and my heart goes out to them.”

Combe was born in South Africa and raised in Britain. He was married with two young sons.

He was no stranger to danger. He was a former British Royal Marine captain and served in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Iraq, retiring after spending three months in Basra in 2003 with the 847 Naval Air Squadron.

In an Otago Daily Times interview in 2011, he said his reconnaissance missions in Iraq were among the most dangerous he had undertaken, and being shot at was like seeing fireworks without the fizz.

Outside his military service, he was a religious man who had worked for the Christian organisation Food for the Hungry in a Rwandan village during the country’s civil war.

Southern Lakes Helicopters (Te Anau) owner/pilot Sir Richard Hayes says the pair were well known and well liked in the local aviation community.

”Speaking on behalf of the aviation community, we’re absolutely devastated and shocked that such a tragedy has happened.

”Stephen was a respected and experienced pilot. James is only a young guy – only just finished school, I believe.

”The industry is going to reel from this one, because it is very close to home.

”The Queenstown aviation community is a pretty close-knit family here. Everyone knows everyone else. We’re all like extended family.” 

Reported overdue

The crashed helicopter, a Robinson R44 operated by Queenstown company Over the Top, was reported overdue to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCCNZ) about 2.30pm yesterday, but its distress beacon was not activated.

The wreckage was discovered by search and rescue crews shortly after 4pm.

A spokeswoman for Over the Top says staff at the company are devastated by the loss of “such valued and highly regarded team members”.

The company is sincerely grateful to the emergency services for “their incredible effort and assistance”.

The company is now working with police and other authorities on a full investigation into the incident, she says.

The company is one of several in the resort that offers heli-fishing trips to the Lochy River, a highly regarded fly-fishing stream.

RCCNZ spokesman Keith Allen said three helicopters from Queenstown and Wanaka were involved in the search.

Senior Sergeant John Fookes, of Queenstown, says the wreckage of the aircraft is located in a rocky river catchment on the other side of Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown.

“The country’s not that far from Queenstown, but it was steep and quite high with a lot of bush coverage.”

He says the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) will have representatives in Queenstown today to begin a scene investigation.

“It is far too early at this stage to say what the likely causes are.

“After CAA and TAIC have had a look, they’ll make some progress towards that I’m sure.”

Fookes says it is hard to say how long wreckage recovery would take.

“The scene effectively belongs to the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, so they’ll do their investigation, starting tomorrow, and recovery of the wreckage will follow.”

Louisa Patterson is the sole director and 100% shareholder of Over The Top Helicopters.

James Patterson Gardner is a 40% shareholder of UAV Ltd, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Ltd and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles NZ Ltd, his mother the sole director and 60% shareholder of each.

The deaths have been referred to the coroner and postmortem examinations will take place in Christchurch today.

Otago Daily Times (additional reporting NZME.)