What happened

At about 1107 on 1 October 2012, the pilot-owner of a vintage de Havilland DH-84 Dragon Mk 2, registered VH-UXG, took off on a private flight from Monto to Caboolture, Queensland. On board with the pilot were five passengers, baggage and equipment. The pilot was not qualified and the aircraft not equipped for instrument flight. The weather on the coast and extending inland included low clouds and rain.

At 1315, the pilot radioed air traffic control (ATC) and requested navigation assistance, advising that the aircraft was in cloud. Over the next 50 minutes ATC provided assistance to the pilot and a search and rescue (SAR) helicopter was dispatched to the area. From the pilot’s radio calls it was apparent that he was unable to navigate clear of the cloud. Radio contact was intermittent and no transmissions from the aircraft were received after 1405.

An extensive search was initiated, and the aircraft wreckage was located on 3 October in high terrain. The aircraft was destroyed and there were no survivors.

What the ATSB found

With no or limited visual references available in and near cloud, it would have been very difficult for the pilot to maintain control of the aircraft. After maintaining control in such conditions for about an hour, and being unable to navigate away from the mountain range, the pilot most likely became spatially disoriented and lost control of the aircraft before it impacted the ground.
Due to the limited radio and radar coverage in the area, the ability of ATC and the SAR helicopter to assist was limited. However, the ATSB found that there were areas of potential improvement in the management of in-flight emergencies and coordination between ATC and SAR aircraft.

What's been done as a result

Airservices Australia and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority agreed to conduct a comprehensive review of their existing memorandum of understanding to ensure the effectiveness of collaborative in-flight emergency responses. The review is anticipated to be completed by the first quarter of 2014.

Safety message

Though it remains unclear precisely how the aircraft came to be in instrument conditions, this accident highlights the importance of pre- and in-flight planning and decision-making in limiting exposure to risk. It is important for pilots to incorporate approved weather forecasts, knowledge of the terrain, and diversion options into their flight planning, to plan for contingencies prior to and throughout a flight, and to carry out those plans well before encountering difficulty.