Civil Aviation Authority launches inquiry into skydiving industry following spate of deaths

The aviation watchdog has put the skydiving industry on notice, launching an urgent inquiry into safety after a spate of fatalities and “concerning trends” revealed by the Herald on Sunday.

Civil Aviation Authoritydeputy chief executive aviation safety David Harrison said the matters raised “require further investigation” and the agency had scrambled a sweeping review beginning next week.

The preliminary focus will be the recreational skydiving sector involving amateur solo parachutists – as opposed to commercial tandem operations – but could be broadened as information “comes to hand”.

Three solo parachutists have died in as many years.

A Herald on Sunday investigation has revealed that the fatalities all involved recent graduates from the Parakai-based New Zealand Skydiving School (NZSS) and two involved jumps by sister company Skydive Auckland.

The companies share the same facilities and same four directors.

Two of the deaths – Hamilton 21-year-old Theo Williams and British 43-year-old Sarah-Jane Bayram – remain under investigation by the CAA.

Bayram was blown out to sea to her death in March after a mid-air collision with a skydiving graduate during a nine-person formation jump at Muriwai Beach.

It later emerged no rescue boat was on standby and Bayram had raised concerns about off-shore wind conditions before boarding the aircraft.

Williams attempted a turn at just 50-feet altitude before smashing into the ground at Tauranga last year while an intern.

In their first interview, his parents Claudia and Gareth Williams said their son was extremely safety conscious and his death “doesn’t make sense”.

“Did something fly into his eye?” Claudia asked. “Did something sting him? Did he black out? What made him suddenly turn?”

The three deaths have sparked questions among senior skydivers about safety and training, and calls for a CAA audit.

It’s understood concerns have been mounting about the skydiving sector within the CAA and a high level meeting was called this week.

After that meeting, Harrison said the agency was now “actively monitoring the sector” and would make recommendations to the director of Civil Aviation “for any action that may be needed to maintain safety”.

The review was in addition to the two investigations already under way into the deaths of Williams and Bayram.

Harrison said the watchdog planned to utilise all available regulatory tools, including potential prosecution or enforcement action under the Civil Aviation Act and Health and Safety at Work Act.

A source told the Herald on Sunday recent media coverage about the aviation adventure industry had “sharpened focus” for the CAA.

Skydive Auckland and NZSS joint director Tony Green said the companies and entire skydive industry always welcomed any review or audit from CAA.

“We always work closely with them and I look forward to seeing the result or outcome of such an investigation.”

Meanwhile, new figures obtained by the Herald on Sunday showed the Parakai drop zone had recorded more accidents than any other Kiwi parachuting operator in the past decade.

Skydive Auckland was defending its safety record, blaming the sheer number of jumps carried out from its Parakai base and “weekend enthusiast” jumpers who were more prone to accidents for skewing the figures.

It can also be revealed that a parachutist suffered broken bones during a hard landing at Parakai last month, just a day after Bayram’s death.

And industry sources claim some skydiving operators around the country are failing to report serious incidents to avoid bad publicity and loss of business.

“Incidents mean ambulances and ambulances mean the press,” a senior skydiver and friend of Bayram said.

Nearly 540 skydiving “occurrences” were reported to the CAA nationally in the past decade.

That included gear malfunctions or tangled canopies, plus accidents resulting in hospital treatment such as broken bones, as well as five fatalities.

Of the 115 accidents reported, 28 were from Parakai/Muriwai, the most recorded by any New Zealand drop zone.

The next highest was Jardines/Queenstown with 20, Taupo with 15, then Wanaka with 11.

Green said the figures were “misleading” because his operation carried out more jumps than other drop zones and had a much higher proportion of recreational parachutists.

“We train more people and do more skydives here in Auckland than the rest of the country all put together. Nobody does this level of jumping.”

Although Auckland trains more parachutists than anyone else, Queenstown and Taupo recorded more jumps with fewer accidents, CAA figures show.

Green said while other drop zones catered predominantly for tourists with tandem jumps involving highly trained instructors, Skydive Auckland mainly dealt with recreational parachutists who were more likely to suffer injuries.

“Someone who goes out on weekends and only jumps once a month just doesn’t have the skill or experience of someone [like a tandem instructor] who has done thousands of jumps.

“The bulk of our accidents are weekend enthusiasts. It’s common sense that the more sport jumpers you deal with the higher your incident rate is going to be.”

Green said the Parakai companies had stringent safety and training standards. All incidents and accidents were notified to authorities. Recreational parachutists were also obligated to self-notify serious incidents.

A senior skydiving source said the accident figures would “add ammunition” to the CAA.

“It’s really down to culture at a drop zone and oversight.

“The CAA is the overall regulator of the aviation sector. In my opinion, they should also be concerned about those numbers.”

A CAA spokesman said it took every aviation accident seriously and would take all available reports and data into account during its investigations.

“CAA will publicly release a report of its findings and any recommendations it makes to industry and/or operators once the current investigations are concluded.

“If any urgent safety issue surfaces at any time during the investigation, CAA will advise the aviation industry immediately.”

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