THE AIRWAYS CORPORATION AGAINST MOUNTAIN SCENEOn Friday 3 January 1997, at 1357 hours, Cessna 310Q aeroplane ZK-KIM, on a private flight returning to Ardmore carrying as passengers five friends of the pilot, was turning left after take-off from Queenstown when it entered a spin, or spiral dive, which led to a collision with the ground. The pilot and all five passengers were killed, apparently instantly.
In the circumstances the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) immediately began an investigation into the causes of the crash for the purposes of a public Report containing its Findings and Recommendations.
Mountain Scene is a newsweekly for the Queenstown and Southern Lakes area concentrating on local issues, especially those connected with tourism. An aircraft crash tragedy of the significance of the 3 January event, wherein six people lost their lives, is of paramount importance to all inhabitants of the region and elsewhere.
Mountain Scene edition Thursday, July 10 - Wednesday, July 16, 1997 published an article under two headlines of which the principal one was “Aftermath” with a subsidiary headline to the right of “Aftermath” with smaller typeface: “Death Dive!”. The subsidiary headline had been used by Mountain Scene in previous and subsequent articles as an icon for its ongoing investigation into the crash. The article was published some six days after the release of the TAIC Report, which had been publicised in the dailies circulating in Queenstown. It was therefore likely the Mountain Scene treatment would be focussed more sharply on interpretation of the Report rather than exposition of its Findings and Recommendations.
As will be detailed hereafter the article contained criticism of the main players in civil aviation safety, namely, Airways Corporation of New Zealand Limited (Airways) and the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (Civil Aviation). Airways complained to the Press Council about the article, but the complaint was not upheld.
It is not the function of the Press Council to sit in judgment on the perceived inadequacies of pilot behaviour and systemic failure as contributors to the tragedy. The Council must adjudicate on the complaint by Airways that the subject article published in Mountain Scene was unbalanced and unfair to Airways and its staff. To understand the adjudication of the Press Council not to uphold the complaint some background must be provided here.
The Queenstown Tower is responsible for providing aerodrome and approach control services within the Queenstown Control Zone and Terminal area. Civil Aviation is responsible for preparing official pilots’ airport guides and national flight training manuals.
The TAIC Report stated that the pilot was inexperienced overall, but particularly in mountainous country. He and his five friends had been holidaying in the area and on the day were returning to Ardmore via a stopover at Nelson. The pilot before take-off went to the control tower where he filed a visual flight rules (VFR) plan with the flight information officer on duty. At 1344 the pilot called Queenstown Ground by radiotelephone (RTF) requesting “ VFR departure for Nelson via Bungy Bridge, for the Crown Saddle.” Queenstown Ground responded with runway 14. The pilot acknowledged. Queenstown Tower cleared the pilot for take-off at 1355 hours and shortly after leaving the ground the aircraft entered a spin, or spiral dive, and crashed to the ground killing all six occupants.
The “Aftermath” article focussed on part of the Report emphasising that a young, inexperienced pilot, with no mountain flying experience had adhered strictly to the Civil Aviation manual by taking a left hand turn after becoming airborne. TAIC Report specifically recorded its observations, “... that the light aircraft of local operators, when departing from runway 14 on commercial scenic flights, commonly turned right after take-off...and that if one did make a left turn the pilot would specifically advise Queenstown Tower of this. This was in spite of a left hand circuit being prescribed for this runway.” Further criticism by Mountain Scene of the system operating at Queenstown was that air controllers told the pilot to take-off from runway 14 instead of giving him the choice of the straight-out main runway. The TAIC investigation stated the take-off clearance was an offer to the pilot to use runway 14 with the option for him to request the main runway if he required it, but conceded it unlikely given his level of experience. The TAIC Report noted the development of a policy to encourage light aircraft to take-off from runway 14 when the main runway 23 was in use.
Airways complaints of the “Aftermath” article were that it:
* implies Airways staff were responsible for the crash;
* ignores the fact that TAIC made no recommendation in respect of Airways;
* contains no statement from Airways to balance the story.
In short Airways complained the story titled “Aftermath - Death Dive!” was irresponsible and unbalanced.
Airways made subsidiary complaints against Mountain Scene alleging abuse of press privilege to run an ongoing campaign of unsupported comment and innuendo against Airways staff. There was mention of a personality clash in the course of the dispute upon which the Council makes no comment. The Press Council confines its adjudication to the specific complaints and will not embark upon the generalised dispute that exists between the parties. It also notes that aspects of the subsidiary complaints have been before the public in newspaper publications.
The Press Council did not uphold Airway’s complaints. In assessing balance and proportionality the Council looked at the article overall, against the background of the event it dealt with - an aircraft crash that claimed six lives. In print media treatment of tragedies, such as this one, there is no mandate that they be refined, or even be phrased in a delicately balanced manner. The causes and recommendations to avoid such a tragedy in the future are primarily, but not exclusively, in the province of the TAIC. The territory of the media is to interpret such a Report, and place a construction on it that it can honestly and fairly carry,whether it is supportive, opposed or selective of the Report’s analysis. Mountain Scene chose to go to what it determined was the kernel of the Report, unadorned by any diplomatically expressed language, or excessive sympathy for the protagonists involved in aviation safety. After the article was published Airways complained to the editor, was given an opportunity to respond, but did not reply to that offer and followed another course. The article might be described as robust, or even hard hitting journalism, but that is not a policy that requires correction, or chilling down by a regulatory body. The headline “Aftermath” is neutral, and “Death Dive!” factual. Some interpretations in the article might be arguable, but it placed before the public what the newspaper considered was the essence of the causes of the crash, based on the TAIC Report, and investigation by the newspaper’s staff. There were no direct Recommendations concerning Airways but a newspaper is not contolled only by a Report’s Recommendations, but is free to use the entire TAIC Report and evaluate it.