Investigators probe parapenter’s death

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Tragic accident: The scene at Queenstown Primary School on Saturday PICTURE: OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Civil Aviation Authority investigators visited Queenstown Primary School yesterday as they tried to piece together why parapenter Ben Letham fell to his death.

Initial reports suggest the canopy on the 26-year-old’s parapente collapsed during his solo recreational flight and he became tangled in cords.

Authority spokesman Mike Richards said on Saturday: ”He lost control and fell through trees and impacted the roof on a prefabricated school building.”

The death of the GForce Paragliding pilot, a Scotsman who has lived in Queenstown for more than five years, prompted tributes and an outpouring of grief among Queenstown’s paragliding and alpine rescue communities.

GForce Paragliding has suspended operations and co-director Gavin Taylor said his team was devastated.

”He was a really nice guy, a talented pilot, and we’re stunned to lose one of the youngest members of our team with his whole life ahead of him.”

Queenstown Alpine Cliff Rescue’s Chris Prudden described Mr Letham as a ”go-getter”.

”For a young guy he’d accomplished a lot. He was technically very capable.

”His climbs of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman and then flying off the summits with his speed wing were pretty notable.”

Queenstown Primary will hold an urgent meeting of board of trustee members and senior management this week.

School principal Fiona Cavanagh said: ”We expect to be able to prepare a standard response for the staff to share with the children as soon as we get back to school so that they’re still feeling safe.

”The board will review the plans around the contract that we have with GForce.”

Witnesses to the incident told the Otago Daily Times Letham fell for about five seconds before hitting the building.

Wellington student Addison Sowers, 21, of Arkansas, said he saw a parapenter doing vertical flips.

”He came around for the fourth or fifth flip and didn’t make it all the way around, so he just fell right through his chute and just started falling from there.”

Queenstown’s Patrick Bjorck, 47, saw Letham fall as he walked through town with three of his children.

”He collected the parachute. And then he managed to get out and the parachute was behind him as he fell, so it was producing drag.

”He wasn’t going as fast as a freefall but he was still going way too fast.”

Letham made headlines in November 2012, crash-landing his parapente into a tall tree near Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park while trying a ”new manoeuvre”.

Otago Daily Times