Scrap of paper leads to recovery of helicopter wreckage

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 47, December 2014 - January 2015

A small piece of paper sitting in a vast canopy of trees was sighted from a search aircraft and provided the clue that led to the recovery of a downed helicopter and the body of its pilot in October.
Search area
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
A map showing the initial search areas and last known position of the Robinson 44 helicopter.

The Robinson 44 helicopter and its sole occupant went missing on a flight from Karamea to Nelson in Kahurangi National Park, 35km west of Motueka in October. The four-day search effort involved five helicopters and six ground search and rescue teams.

RCCNZ coordinated the search with NZ Police, who led the ground teams. RCCNZ Acting Deputy Manager Operations David Wilson said it had been a truly collaborative effort, with Police and RCCNZ working closely throughout to ensure the ground teams were supported and guided by the aerial searchers.

No emergency beacon signal was detected following the crash, and the search area was based on the last information received from the helicopter’s tracking system, which sent a signal every three minutes.

RCCNZ analysed how far the aircraft could have flown from the last known position and determined the likely search areas from this data, based on the expected direction of flight. The total area covered was about 200 square kilometres.

This is the piece of paper spotted by a helicopter hovering 30 metres above the bush canopy.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

“This search was painstakingly conducted over incredibly steep bush-clad terrain. Our search aircraft went over the search areas multiple times because it was so difficult to pick out any detail in the dense canopy,” said David Wilson.

“Windy weather hampered the aerial search on the second day, as the helicopters were unable to maintain the low speed flight needed for this kind of close, detailed searching.

“Meanwhile, the ground teams were facing such challenging terrain that it could take hours to cover just a small area. It meant you couldn’t do a traditional grid search, but had to follow the contours of the land,” he said.

“The discovery of the wreckage hinged on the spotting of a piece of paper from a helicopter hovering 30 metres above the bush canopy, which is testimony to how difficult the search was – and how good the search teams were,” said David.

The paper – about the size of a $10 note – was seen by a spotter in one of the search helicopters, and a crewman was winched down to check it. He was able to confirm the paper came from the missing aircraft, and the LandSAR teams were diverted to the area to look beneath the canopy.

“Even once the first items of the wreckage had been located, it still took some hours for the ground teams to reach the fuselage,” said David.

“This is an absolute tragedy for the family and friends of the pilot, and our hearts go out to them, but we were really proud of the effort that went into the search and the fact that we were at least able to bring his body home for them.”

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission and the Civil Aviation Authority are conducting separate investigations into the crash.

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