Small aircraft are used for recreation and in work that underpins the New Zealand economy. Yet they are particularly accident-prone. A 2004 study of accidents between 1990 and 2002 found that New Zealand had five times the rate of small aircraft crashes than the US, and four times that of the UK. The accident rate was similar to Australia’s, but New Zealand crashes killed twice as many people. These grim statistics are partly explained by the profusion of light aircraft in New Zealand. From the 1950s they became more affordable to small airlines, aero clubs and private owners, and numbers soared.
Caution is an important quality for a pilot, as this old aviation saying warns:
‘There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots;
But there are no old, bold pilots.’
Experiments using aircraft to spread fertiliser onto inaccessible country took place during and after the Second World War. The benefits to agriculture were immediately obvious, and an industry developed using the skills of hundreds of former military pilots, often flying ex-air force Tiger Moths. But lax safety standards, bad pilot habits and the inherent dangers of flying near to the ground led to many crashes. The Fletcher FU24, a specialised topdressing plane, made the task easier. From the 1960s, pilot training, farmer education, improved aircraft design, and regular safety bulletins were all aimed at reducing accidents, but the high crash rate continued into the 1970s.
New Zealand’s magnificent scenery attracts many tourists. Some of the most spectacular areas are best viewed from on high. Air tourism caught on during the Second World War, when American troops stationed in New Zealand chartered planes to view South Island beauty spots. Scenic flights continued in the 1950s and became more popular from the 1960s. But the density of traffic in some areas, and the need for pilots to fly low over rugged terrain, often while giving a commentary, have contributed to some serious accidents. The repercussions have extended beyond New Zealand: in 1989 the death of six Japanese tourists in a mid-air collision above Milford Sound is estimated to have cost the tourism industry $30 million in lost revenue.
When not using navigation systems, pilots must adhere to visual flight rules. This means avoiding cloud or darkness and keeping to prescribed heights. The life expectancy of pilots who enter cloud without navigational instruments is somewhere around 19 seconds. Either they will fly into solid ground concealed by cloud (dubbed ‘cumulogranite’), or they will become disorientated and lose control of their aircraft.
Helicopters began to appear in New Zealand skies from the 1950s and were widely used from the 1970s. In forestry, construction work, deer recovery, sightseeing, traffic monitoring, police work, air ambulance services and search and rescue they have become indispensable. However, such flights often require pilots to fly at low altitudes, closer to hazards such as cables. Some 95% of helicopter operations are carried out within 300 metres of the ground and 80% within 150 metres, which helps explain their high accident rate.