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The Maltese flag general cargo/container vessel Cape Arnhem sailed from the port of Gladstone, Queensland just before midnight on 24 February 1997. As No.2 hatch was clear of containers, the Agent had informed the Master that the Pilot would be taken off by helicopter. The Master had queried this, but was assured by the marine Pilot that there was ample room at No.2 hatch for safe helicopter operations.

At 0045, 25 February, the marine Pilot asked the Master to have all the deck lights switched on and for No.2 crane to be topped and swung out to port in readiness for the helicopter. These requests were complied with, No.2 crane being topped and slewed to maximum, the hook also being raised to 'cut-out' position. When this had been carried out, the Pilot informed the helicopter that it was safe to approach the vessel from the starboard side.

The helicopter landed on the starboard side of No.2 hatch at 0105, when the vessel was in the vicinity of S1 and S2 buoys. The marine Pilot went down to the deck and boarded the helicopter, fastening himself into the starboard front seat, next to the helicopter pilot.

The helicopter lifted off the hatch, hovered briefly, tilted and started to move forward, across the hatch, towards the port side. It then started to climb, accelerated and, according to those watching and to their concern, it banked to the left. There was then a loud bang as the main rotor blades struck the hook block of the topped No.2 crane. The helicopter started to rotate, the tail rotor also striking the hook block. The helicopter then flipped upside down and fell to the sea, about 20 m from the ship's side.

The Master immediately informed Gladstone Port Control, started to slow the vessel down and mustered the emergency lifeboat's crew. As soon as way was off the vessel, the lifeboat was launched and sent to the area of the accident.

A local fishing vessel was first on the scene, rescuing the helicopter pilot and recovering the body of the marine Pilot. A marine rescue boat from Gladstone was able to retrieve the upturned helicopter.

The helicopter/aviation aspects of the incident were investigated by the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI).


These conclusions should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organisation or individual.

The clear area available at no.2 hatch was in excess of the 16 m required for a Hughes 500 helicopter.

From the evidence provided by the master and officers:

  • Cape Arnhem maintained a steady course and speed during the helicopter operation;
  • the helicopter banked to the left as it climbed from the hatch.

Although it had no bearing on this incident, the crew were neither well versed nor drilled in helicopter operations, which raises the question of the advisability of utilising a helicopter when there is likely to be no emergency support procedure in place.

The helicopter/aviation aspects of the incident will be the subject of a report by the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI).

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