Monday, January 19, 2009

Pilot was texting before fatal chopper crash

A pilot killed after crashing into Lake Wanaka was sending text messages as he flew the helicopter on its final journey.

Friends of Morgan Saxton, 31, have confirmed the experienced Haast pilot sent texts to at least one friend from his newly rebuilt Robinson R22 helicopter, before it crashed on November 1.

Another pilot says the practise is common - and claims it isn't dangerous as long as flyers aren't too distracted.

Saxton had been flying towards Wanaka Airport in "perfect conditions", with his father, David Saxton, piloting another helicopter ahead of him.

A search started after Saxton's father became concerned when his son did not arrive.

Saxton texted his friend Jonathon Wallis about 6.20pm - when he would have been flying - but because the precise time of the crash was not confirmed, they would "never know" if the texting could have been a factor, said Wallis' brother, Toby.

He said Saxton was an experienced pilot and would not have been "playing around" in the aircraft. "It's so bizarre and tragic. There's no way he would have been playing around."

Jonathon Wallis would not comment last night.

Toby Wallis said texting and flying was common among pilots and something he did himself.

"We might get a text telling us about another flight and so we might send a quick text back. It's no different to changing the radio station in a car, but it could be dangerous if you are distracted by it."

Saxton and his father, who is in his 60s, made headlines in 2007 after they were convicted of stealing greenstone from South Westland between 1997 and 2003.

Both men were sentenced to two years in Paparoa Prison, but the Court of Appeal released them in June 2008.

Friend Kerry Eggeling said the pilots were "good men" who ran the successful Heliventures in Haast.

Eggeling helped conduct search and rescue efforts after the crash and said he heard Saxton had been texting during his flight.

"He did send some texts to his friend when he was flying. I don't know if it's a dangerous thing to do, but no one knows how high Morgan was flying.

"If he was flying quite low I suppose it's possible he might not have been watching and could have been distracted."

Eggeling said Saxton's father had "completely gone into his shell" since the death of his son.

Deputy chief investigator for the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, Ken Mathews, was unable to comment on whether Saxton's texting was a factor. "We are looking at every aspect of the flight."

Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman Emma Peel said there was no specific law banning pilots texting while flying, but many outlined the need for them to have a "clear visual brief of where they are and what else is around them".

Tim Barrow, operations manager for Helipro Scenic and Charter Flights in Rotorua said he "wouldn't encourage" pilots to text while flying.

"In certain phases of flight, texting would be a silly thing to do.

"In critical phases of flight you wouldn't dream of it."

Barrow said he knew Saxton and doubted whether texting was to blame.

Auckland-based rescue helicopter pilot Steve Couchman said: "Most of us carry mobiles but I don't answer mine when I'm flying.

"In my opinion nothing is important enough to be using your phone during a flight."


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