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History of the flight

The aircraft had departed Bankstown for a dual instrument flight rules (IFR) training flight, including aerial work at Goulburn followed by two practice instrument landing system (ILS) approaches at Canberra, before returning to Bankstown.

After completion of the second ILS approach, the pilot was instructed to carry out a missed approach and climb to 7,000 ft.

As the aircraft was levelling in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), the instructor noticed that engine Manifold Absolute Pressure (MAP) had reduced from 30 inches to 25 inches. He asked the pilot if he had adjusted the power and the pilot replied in the negative. At 1127 EST, the instructor advised Canberra Approach (APP) that the aircraft had experienced a loss of power. He reported that the aircraft was able to maintain 7,000 ft and confirmed that he wished to return to Canberra for landing. Air Traffic Control then instructed the pilot to turn the aircraft onto a southerly heading.

Between 10 and 15 seconds later, the aircraft occupants heard a loud thump that shook the aircraft, and the engine RPM reduced significantly. At 1128 the pilot advised APP that the engine had failed and requested that APP provide headings to the vicinity of Lake George. APP identified the aircraft on radar at a position 17 NM to the north-east of Canberra over the western shores of Lake George. APP then passed information to the pilot about an airfield near Bungendore as a possible landing area.

At 1129, the pilot advised that assistance was still required and confirmed that the aircraft was still in IMC. APP advised the pilot to disregard the previous vectoring instructions, indicated that a landing on the Federal Highway might be possible and instructed the pilot to turn onto a heading of 020 degrees.

At 1131, the pilot advised that the aircraft was descending through 4,200 ft. At 1132, APP requested that the pilot activate his emergency locator transmitter (ELT). The pilot then advised that the aircraft was still in IMC and passing 3,500 ft. APP advised that the aircraft was passing over the northern shores of Lake George and requested the pilot to turn the aircraft right to an easterly heading to avoid high terrain in the area. No reply was received.

Another aircraft, VH-DUP, was in the Goulburn area at this time and the pilot offered to relay a message to VH-SMA. APP requested the pilot of VH-DUP to listen out on 121.5 MHz to determine if an ELT had been activated. The pilot of VH-DUP advised that he was unable to make contact with VH-SMA and confirmed an ELT signal on 121.5 MHz.

The time of the accident was 1133. A rear-seat occupant, who was also a qualified pilot, later stated that he estimated that the aircraft broke through the cloudbase below 300 ft above ground level (AGL).

An army helicopter was dispatched from Canberra at approximately 1155 and proceeded to the area of the last known position of VH-SMA. A second helicopter carrying a medical team was dispatched to the area at 1230.

Wreckage examination

Wreckage was distributed along a 49 m trail aligned approximately east. The aircraft had entered the timbered area on this track and had partially broken up as it descended through the trees. As the aircraft penetrated the timber, it struck and severed tree branches and trunks over 150 mm in diameter, starting 49.3 m and ending 28.5 m from the main wreckage, before coming to rest on a south-westerly heading against the trunk of a large tree approximately 1 m in diameter.

The main wreckage consisted of the fuselage, the fin, the right horizontal tailplane and most of both wings. The left horizontal tailplane had been torn off during the impact sequence. The empennage showed evidence of oil streaking, indicative of engine oil loss in flight. The fuselage had been almost completely destroyed by post-impact fire.

The engine and propeller remained attached to the fuselage. Inspection of the propeller indicated that the engine was not producing power at impact. The engine was basically intact and unaffected by fire. Both magnetos had separated from the engine. There were two holes in the top of the crankcase aligned with cylinders number 2 and 3. When the engine was turned over for examination, approximately 1 L of oil flowed out of the holes in the crankcase.

Significant factors

  1. The engine failed due to a loss of effective lubrication. The reason for the loss could not be established beyond doubt.
  2. The engine failure occurred in weather conditions that did not permit the pilot to carry out a visual forced landing onto favourable terrain.
  3. The approach controller was unable to vector the aircraft to an obstruction-free landing site due to equipment and time limitations.
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