$64,000 fine for sightseeing aviation breaches

A fine of $64,000 has been imposed after guilty pleas to health and safety charges that arose after a helicopter crash that killed seven people at Fox Glacier in November 2015.

Fox & Franz Heliservices owner James Scott, and Aviation Manual Development Ltd had admitted charges brought by the Civil Aviation Authority before their sentencing in the Christchurch District Court.

As the session began, Judge Kevin Phillips had those in court stand in silence while he read the names of those who had died in the crash when an AS350 Squirrel helicopter on a scenic tourist flight crashed into a crevasse high on Fox Glacier.

The crash killed 28-year-old Kiwi pilot Mitch Gameren and six tourists: Andrew Virco, 50, of Cambridge, England, and Katharine Walker, 51, of Cambridge, Nigel Edwin Charlton, 66, and Cynthia Charlton, 70, both of Hampshire, Sovannmony Leang of New South Wales, 27, and Josephine Gibson of New South Wales, 29.

Scott had pleaded guilty to two charges of failing to take all practical steps to keep his employees and others safe. Aviation Manual Development (2009) Ltd, which provided quality assurance management for Scott’s operation, also pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety regulations.

The Civil Aviation Authority submitted there were eight practicable steps that should have been taken to ensure the safety of employees and passengers. These were in technical areas, as well as training, weight and balance, and supervision. The defendants had “departed from established and clear industry guidelines”.

It was accepted that the various failings “did not cause the crash”, the judge said as the hearing began.

The family of the pilot spoke of admiring his professionalism when they flew with him shortly before the crash. They said he wanted his passengers to love the South Westland glaciers as much as he did.

Family members of the tourists were either present in court or watching by video-link from other parts of the world. Several people read victim impact statements.

A family member of the Charltons said earlier guilty pleas would have shortened the period of distress felt by the family. She called for a change in the attitude to health and safety in the New Zealand leisure industry.

Another family member spoke of there having been an egregious and systemic failure in the regard for safety regulations.

Scott has already paid $125,000 as a voluntary reparations payment to each family who lost members in the crash – a total of $875,000.

Scott came forward from the public gallery to make a statement at the judge’s invitation. He said he was very sorry to the families for what happened. He had been willing to meet the families of the crash victims at a restorative justice meeting. It had been thought it was too difficult with families all over the world, but he was still willing if it could be arranged.

Garth Gallaway, counsel for Scott, said media had an obligation to report the sentencing on the basis of Scott not facing any charges that alleged “causation or contribution to the tragedy that is the accident”.

He said Scott had accepted responsibility by pleading guilty. He was “not a man of words”. He had worked within the aviation industry for 30 years.

He said Scott did not seek to cast blame but he noted that CAA said there were “egregious breaches” by Scott, but within the regulatory framework none of these breaches had been picked up by audits over a long period of time.

Counsel of Aviation Manual Development Ltd, Doug Taffs, said the major shareholder and company director Barry Waterland did not seek to minimise the matter but the company simply could not pay at all.

He bitterly regretted what had happened. The company would be wound up voluntarily or involuntarily. Because of action taken by the CAA, the company had been moribund and unable to make any money since 2017. This had destroyed a lifetime of professional application and achievement in the civil aviation industry, and he was totally unable to pay a fine.

Judge Phillips acknowledged the families’ losses. He reviewed the facts of the flight and the crash, and the sumissions. He noted CAA’s submission that the operation was running in an area where there was a serious risk of harm from a crash.

After deductions for mitigating factors, he imposed a fine of $64,000 on Scott but no fine for Aviation Manual Development Ltd because of its inability to pay.