Canterbury wedding helicopter crash: Pilot’s quick thinking saved lives

It has been a month since a Christchurch couple’s wedding joy turned to horror when the helicopter they were in crashed shortly after takeoff.

The newlyweds, pilot and wedding photographer remain in hospital and all have a long recovery ahead – a journey that is going to be painful and uncertain for some.

And today an independent expert has praised the pilot for the way she handled the terrifying crash – crediting her with saving the lives of all on board.

The investigation into the incident is ongoing as the four survivors start to consider a new normal with potential lifelong and life-changing injuries.

The Robinson R44 helicopter plunged into the ground at Terrace Downs Golf Resort about an hour out of Christchurch soon after take-off on June 12.

On board were Fay El Hanafy and Mahdi Zougub who had married shortly before the crash, their hired wedding photographer Rachel Jordan and their pilot Lynda Harrap.

Harrap is the commercial operations pilot and quality and safety manager for the company that owns the R44,Wyndon Aviation.

All four suffered extensive injuries and were rushed to Christchurch Hospital.

Jordan has since been transferred to Auckland, closer to her home in Northland and it’s understood the newlyweds remain at Christchurch Hospital.

Harrap has been transferred to Burwood Hospital and is having ongoing treatment for “significant injuries to the hand, wrist, leg and back including broken bones and lacerations”.

“Lynda continues to see improvements in respect of her recovery but the advice given to her is that recovery is going to take quite some time,” said Wyndon Aviation spokesman Mike Fransham.

Harrap, from Rolleston just out of Christchurch, declined to speak to the Herald about the crash.

Both Wyndon Aviation and the Civil Aviation Authority have confirmed the cause of the crash was a loss of power to the helicopter’s engine.

Investigations by the company and CAA as to what caused the power loss are ongoing.

Fransham said Harrap was yet to speak to the CAA and a time for an interview with the safety investigator was yet to be confirmed.

According to Wyndon Aviation’s website Harrap is an experienced pilot and flight instructor who has an extensive background in the Queenstown adventure industry.

Collectively, she and director and chief pilot Mark Watson have more than 25,000 hours of flying time logged in fixed wing and rotor wing machines.

The CAA has confirmed to the Herald under the Official Information Act that there is only one other historical occurrence relating to Wyndon Aviation.

It is not connected to last month’s crash.

“This occurrence was a minor door hinge defect found during routine maintenance in 2020,” said a CAA spokeswoman.

“The defect was immediately rectified by the operator, and all other door hinges were inspected at this time.”

Fransham said the company would not be commenting on the “cracked hinge”.

He said reporting and resolving the issue was “just a normal procedure” under the CAA rules.

Jordan is recovering in Auckland. She told the Herald tonight her doctors believe she will walk again.

Her husband Eric Jordan told the Herald she had a third surgery in early July under one of the country’s top foot surgeons.

She is at Middlemore Hospital but will soon be moved to a dedicated spinal unit specialising in rehabilitation.

“The structure of the helicopter crushed the bones in her feet, and they felt she needed additional intervention to assist the healing process of the bone structure over time.”

Eric Jordan said his wife was having daily physical therapy to improve her back strength – helping her to learn to sit up on her own and other strength-related exercises.

She will move to the spinal unit this week where staff will focus on “rehabilitating her back, legs and feet”.

Eric Jordan travelled between Auckland and their home in the Bay of Islands with the couple’s son, Evan.

“We take Rachel healthy organic foods and juices to help her recovery and we spend time being close together as a family,” he said.

“Rachel has become friends with many of her nurses, and even vows to take portrait photos of them as soon as she is out of the hospital and on the mend.

“Even though she is tied to a hospital bed and healing from the accident that has become her entire universe, she still thinks often of photography and being able to do what she loves doing again in the future.

“Rachel and I talk almost every evening on the phone and discuss ways that we can change our lives in the future so that she can still do photography and keep the gardens she’s designed on our lifestyle block as beautiful as they’ve always been.

“Rachel is fully determined to recover, and this is where we’ve put all our focus – both physically, mentally, and spiritually.”

Eric Jordan said his wife and family’s lives have been “turned upside down”.

“Much of our lives must be rearranged in order to deal with the complexities of dealing with the implications of Rachel’s injuries,” he said.

“We are so grateful for the number of people reaching out to us and offering to lend a hand – it’s really helped us get through this incredibly difficult time.”

Wyndon Aviation this afternoon released a statement about its own investigation into the crash.

Fransham said a review of the data and other evidence gathered over the last four weeks had been requested and completed by an “independent, highly respected helicopter pilot and flight instructor”.

“In any investigation it is important the evidence is considered objectively and that is the reason why we requested a review of the flight path data,” the company said.

“Simon Spencer-Bower brings the sort of rigour that is required to such an investigation.”

Spencer-Bower concluded that when the engine failed, Harrap was left with “very limited options for a safe outcome”.

“In an event such as this, the higher an aircraft is above ground level, the more time and options a pilot has to select a suitable landing area and accomplish a safe landing,” he said.

“In this case the pilot was only just above tree height, the worst possible time for a total loss of engine power.

“In this case, the events, procedures and takeoff profile adopted by the pilot, prior to the failure, have largely determined the final outcome.”

Spencer-Bower said the survival of all on board essentially came down to Harrap’s handling of the situation.

“A successful outcome of a total and sudden engine failure is largely dependent on a pilot’s split-second initiation and having sufficient altitude and airspeed to establish a stable auto rotation and also having a suitable area on which to land,” he said.

“The pilot in this case was not only a highly experienced commercial pilot, but also a senior helicopter flight instructor, used to practising and teaching such emergencies.

“All parameters of the flight leading up to the time of engine failure were conducted entirely ‘by the book’. No compromises were made.

“Faced with the worst possible emergency, with very little altitude and limited landing area options, the pilot was able to react immediately to the dire situation and established the helicopter into auto rotational descent, avoided trees ahead and steered to a clear area and was able to flare to helicopter onto the ground with as little vertical descent as possible in the situation, reducing the impact forces sufficiently and thereby saving everyone’s lives.

“This is a great example of a professional pilot, flying ‘by the book’ and performing as good a job that could have been done in the situation.”

Fransham said the company was pleased with the report.

“Suffice to say Wyndon Aviation is extremely proud of their pilot and how she handled the most difficult of situations,” he said.

The CAA investigation is ongoing.

• An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jordan could not feel her legs and was unlikely to walk again. This was based on information provided to the Herald by a family member.

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