What happened

At about 0930 Eastern Standard Time on 28 May 2012, the pilot of a Cessna Aircraft Company 172 aircraft, registered VH-WLF, departed Wentworth Airport, New South Wales for a private flight under the visual flight rules. No details of the flight were submitted to Air Traffic Services nor left with any other person and there was no requirement to do so. A property owner at the airport witnessed the aircraft depart and, following the failure of the aircraft to return to Wentworth, notified the police on the afternoon of 29 May 2012. As a result of that notification, a search was initiated.

Following an extensive visual search involving multiple aircraft, the crew of a search helicopter sighted the aircraft wreckage on the evening of 30 May 2012 near the Murray River, about 10 km west of Wentworth Airport. Upon landing, the helicopter crew established that the pilot had received fatal injuries.

What the ATSB found

The ATSB found that shortly after departure from Wentworth Airport the aircraft collided steeply with terrain at high speed and that the accident was not survivable. There was no evidence of any in-flight failure of the airframe structure or flight control system and the engine appeared to have been producing significant power at impact.

Based on advice from the aircraft manufacturer following their consideration of on-site evidence, and in the absence of an identified problem with the aircraft, the ATSB concluded that continual pilot input was probably applied to the flight controls immediately before the impact with terrain. However, the possibility that the pilot may have applied that input as a result of incapacitation could not be discounted.

Safety message

Although there was no requirement for details of the flight to be provided to Air Traffic Services or other agencies, the lack of such information hampered the search and rescue (SAR) response to this accident. If information on the intended flight route had been available, a more focussed search effort would have been possible and probably have resulted in the rapid location of the aircraft. In addition, although the carriage of a portable emergency locator transmitter (ELT) complied with the relevant regulations, a crash-activated ELT installation, normally associated with a permanent aircraft installation, would have expedited the provision to SAR agencies of more timely advice of an accident. Although earlier location of the aircraft would not have reduced the severity of the outcome in this instance, the availability of accurate flight information generally provides for a more timely emergency response.