What went wrong that fatal day two men died in chopper crash
A CORONER has ruled out mechanical failure as the cause of a fatal helicopter crash at Shoalwater Bay in 2011.
Coroner Michael O'Donnell handed down his findings yesterday after a two-day inquest in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court into the Heli Charters Australia AS350 helicopter crash at Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area on September 8, 2011.
Wayne Patrick Schofield, 54, and Haydn Jonathon Redfern were killed when the six-seater AS350 Squirrel they were travelling in plunged into dense vegetation 150 metres from a landing site on top of Double Mountain South. Another passenger, Ken Purbrick, survived.
Mr O'Donnell found the crash was caused by pilot error as the pilot was insufficiently familiar with the AS350 and initial incorrect input into the aircraft's controls led to the pilot losing control of the machine.
He found the tail of the aircraft struck vegetation, causing the aircraft to invert and crash.
Mr O'Donnell said the narrow window to land - the small size of the landing area coupled with the overgrown vegetation at the site - was a contributing factor to the crash.
The inquest had heard Mr Redfern only had 32 hours flying experience in the AS530 before the Shoalwater Bay incident and the minimum requirement according to the operational manual for a pilot to be tasked on such a job in this aircraft was 100.
Donald Little, who had been a passenger when Mr Redfern 'ferried' the aircraft from Cairns to Yeppoon ahead of the job, told the inquest Mr Redfern seemed to be unfamiliar with the controls, getting them back to front, having mostly flown a Robinson R44 prior.
HCA's chief pilot and lead pilots at the time of the crash - Casey Mackenzie and Roger Humphrey - both told the inquest their views were that Mr Redfern was not competent for the Shoalwater Bay job. They also said they had not been advised by HCA managing director Steve Spinaze or operations manager Nigel Coleman that Mr Redfern would be flying into the military training area.
The court heard other versions of how it came to be that Mr Redfern was the pilot that day including a more experienced pilot nominated to be contracted to do the work costing too much and therefore excluded; Mr Redfern to be tasked to the first two-days of the job and Mr Spinaze to do the third; and Mr Spinaze to do all three days but was called away to a rescue on a Navy ship in Cape Flattery.
"The system of tasking was clearly ad hoc, and casual, at best with this operator," Mr O'Donnell said. "There should only be a single system, and one person (the chief pilot), with authority to decide who does what tasks."
Questions were raised during the inquest about whether a missing hydraulic pump belt could have been the cause of the crash rather than pilot error. The inquest heard the belt was linked with a hydraulic pressure system which would have assisted the pilot to reach an airspeed of 40-60 knots and gain more control in the event of an emergency. There had been crashes overseas caused by this drive belt failing.
THIS VIDEO SHOWS WHAT HAPPENS TO THE AS350 WHEN THE HYDRAULIC SYSTEM FAILS (IT WAS PLAYED DURING THE INQUEST):
However, Mr O'Donnell ruled out the hydraulic belt as a cause or contributing factor.
He did rule, however, that Mr Redfern's lack of experience with flying AS350 was a factor. He had 32 hours flight time in this model prior to flying it from Cairns to Yeppoon and two days of operations in the Shoalwater area.
"The day prior to the accident his (Mr Redfern) first task in the training area exposed him to two of the high-altitude landing sites, and he recorded 1.8 hours flight time that day with the same passengers," Mr O'Donnell said.
The court heard on September 8, Mr Redfern made a successful landing at the first pinnacle site at an elevation of 700 feet.
Double Mountain South's landing site is above 2400 feet.
"After hearing the evidence it was clear to me that as Mr Redfern aborted his landing attempt (on Double Mountain South), due to the restricted nature of the landing site, he powered up and commence to climb to 'go around' again," Mr O'Donnell said.
"He then began to turn left. This was all conducted in a controlled fashion and at that time he is commencing to leave the landing area.
"His aircraft is then caught by a sudden turbulence caused by the nature of the mountain peak topography. His lack of innate familiarity with this aircraft, with its reversed controls, has then caused him to respond with an initial incorrect control input, which coupled with the unexpected wind turbulence has led to a loss of aircraft control which he was unable to regain before the aircraft's tail struck the standing vegetation. The striking of the vegetation then caused the aircraft to invert and impact the ground heavily."