Theories but no answers for pilot’s family


OFTEN a coronial inquest provides a sense of closure for family and friends of people who have died in tragic circumstances. Bruce Andrews’ family have waited almost four years for answers. Following a four-day inquest in Queenstown last week – which has been adjourned part-heard – they left with none. TRACEY ROXBURGH reports.

IT is a case that is, to say the least, baffling.

A pilot with more than 15,000 hours’ experience killed when the Hughes 500 helicopter he was flying crashed in the Glade Burn Valley almost four years ago.

And no-one seems to know why.

The last contact William Bruce Andrews (49) made on December 15, 2013, was at 4.55pm.

Mr Andrews had dropped off some passengers at Rat Point, near Queenstown, while doing contract work for Milford Helicopters.

On the return leg to Milford, he was tasked with flying via Dumpling Hut to pick up an injured Department of Conservation worker.

He didn’t make it.

His crashed, still smouldering helicopter was spotted from the air by colleagues Sarah de Reeper and Sean ‘Snow’ Mullally at 9.15 that night.

Over four days last week, 14 witnesses, expert witnesses and investigators provided evidence for coroner Brigitte Windley during the inquest into his death.

Ms Windley has been assisted by counsel Marie Taylor-Cyphers; Milford Helicopters has been represented by Craig Ruane; the Civil Aviation Authority by Duncan Ferrier; and Angela Beazer has assisted Mr Andrews’ family.

The CAA investigation, which was peer-reviewed and, earlier this year, independently reviewed, found it “likely”‘ Mr Andrews inadvertently flew into cloud, became spatially disoriented and had a controlled flight into terrain while flying the recently overhauled helicopter.

It happens to even the most experienced pilots.

But those who knew Mr Andrews struggle to comprehend that finding.

He was  described variously as highly experienced, competent, concise, situationally aware, responsible and – by Sir Richard Hayes – a “bloody good pilot”.

He was, by all accounts, a cautious pilot who avoided risk.

The inquest heard Mr Andrews had been on a flight many years ago with a colleague where they inadvertently entered cloud.

They managed to get out, but it gave him a fright and it was a situation he would avoid repeating.

Intermittent cloud that day meant he would have been flying cautiously. He was.

Right up until the last moments when he entered a sudden, steep and rapid left-turning descent.

The inquest heard the route he took was known by local pilots to be clear of cloud in the type of weather encountered that day.

And even if there was cloud, fellow pilots familiar with the area were confounded by the turn he made.

It raised questions about other possible causes for the crash, primarily a medical event.

He had returned from Alaska in October and in November, shortly after having his aero-medical certificate renewed, he completed a return flight from New Zealand to Bangkok via

Eighteen days later, on the day of his death, he  complained of “strange” leg pain, the likes of which he had never had before, but he put it down to an injury he sustained in 1992 playing up.

The pain appeared to get worse as the day wore on and a limp became more pronounced.

Unusually for the man described by colleague Sarah de Reeper as “chivalrous”, Mr Andrews let her take the heavy tail of the Hughes 500 the second time it was brought out of the
hangar at Milford.

In the aftermath, the leg pain gave rise to an initial theory Mr Andrews had deep vein thrombosis, leading to a pulmonary embolism and sudden loss of consciousness.

But the pathologist who examined him said had that been the cause, he would have expected to see evidence of it – and he couldn’t.

There were also theories about his eyesight.

In the days before his crash, he told a friend his eyes would occasionally go “hazy and fuzzy from the top down”.

The inquest heard that could be amaurosis fugax, in which vision is disrupted for up to a minute due to a temporary blockage of blood supply to the eye.

It could indicate an increased risk of stroke.

Another theory was degeneration of one of four eye conditions diagnosed a year prior, which, in essence, could lead to retinal detachment.

The CAA’s lead investigator was Peter Stevenson-Wright, who had 20 years’ experience with fixed-wing aircraft.

He was assisted by two other investigators who, between them, had more than 20 years’ engineering experience with helicopters.

They determined the attitude of the helicopter on the ground indicated there had been a “level of input” from Mr Andrews at the last moment, leading the CAA to believe he was not incapacitated at the time of the crash.

CAA safety adviser Alan Moselin could not rule out a medical factor causing a “distraction” but did not believe it to have been the cause.

The reliability of GPS data was discussed at length, as was  a “protruding bluff”  the CAA believed Mr Andrews had been trying to avoid.

But fellow pilot Jonathan Larrivee re-created and filmed the last portion of Mr Andrews’ final flight, using the GPS data provided by the CAA.

There was no protruding bluff and he said his helicopter was about 300 feet clear of terrain at the closest point.

No mechanical fault was found with the helicopter.

But experienced helicopter engineer Tom McCready had some questions, including about the speed at which – six hours – the on-site investigation was done.

The Hughes 500 had had about 40 hours’ flight time following an overhaul and it had caught fire.

Mr McCready said that was uncommon and the crash could have been caused by a fire, not the other way around.

For Mr Andrews’ family, the search for answers continues.

Last Thursday afternoon, Ms Windley adjourned the inquest, part-heard, seeking further information.

She did not schedule a timetable and is not yet sure whether the hearing will be resumed publicly or can be concluded on paper.

Either way, Mr Andrews’ family seem no wiser now than they were almost four years ago.

Did not take risks: brother

WILLIAM Bruce Andrews had two great loves. The first was his two young children. Aviation was the second.

Mr Andrews  was killed in December 2013  when the helicopter he was flying crashed in the Glade Burn Valley.

His family, including his brothers Robert and Doug, have spent almost four years and about $60,000  searching for  answers.

They, along with their mother Joan, sat through every minute of the first four days of his inquest in Queenstown last week.

The Civil Aviation Authority determined the father of two’s death to have been caused by spatial disorientation leading to a controlled flight into terrain.

But his family do not agree.

“They changed the wording [in the final report] … from ‘probable’ to ‘likely’,” Robert Andrews said.

“We’re not sure if it’s probable, most likely or didn’t happen.

“It could be mechanical, weather, medical or a combination of all three.”

While they are frustrated the wait for answers continues, they are heartened coroner Brigitte Windley is taking her time.

They would prefer the finding to be undetermined cause rather than one they believe is wrong.

Robert Andrews said his brother avoided risks.

“He hardly drank.  He never raced his car up and down gravel roads like some of his brothers might have.

“He loved his flying and his kids – they were the most important thing in his life, above everything else.

“He would do anything for those kids.”

Doug Andrews does not want his brother’s descendants to one day look into his death, read online articles and think “he’s flown into cloud – he must have been a cowboy”.

“He definitely wasn’t a cowboy.”

Robert Andrews agreed with a statement Sir Richard Hayes made during the inquest – that pilots often become more cautious with experience.

As Doug Andrews puts it:  “The older you get, the less you want to die”.