What happened

On the afternoon of 25 August 2014, the pilots of two Robinson R22 helicopters were ferrying the helicopters from Yeeda to Springvale via a refuelling stop at Leopold Downs, within the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The pilot who was ahead by about 10 NM (18 km) arrived at Springvale about 40 minutes after last light but the pilot of the second helicopter, registered VH‑YPC, did not arrive as expected.

A search using helicopters began early the next morning and the overdue helicopter was soon found in a seriously damaged state, close to the intended track and 25 NM (46 km) west of Springvale. The pilot had been fatally injured.

What the ATSB found

The ATSB found that the pilot of VH-YPC, who did not hold a night visual flight rules (VFR) rating or instrument rating, continued flying towards the destination after last light (end of civil twilight), then in dark night conditions without local ground lighting, inadvertently allowed the helicopter to descend into terrain.

Safety message

This accident highlights the inherent high risk of night flying in remote areas due to the absence or degradation of the visual references for establishing an aircraft’s attitude and position. This risk is increased to unacceptable levels when night flying is attempted by pilots without night VFR or instrument flying qualifications. To avoid the usually fatal consequences of disorientation, day VFR pilots need to plan to arrive at their destination at least 10 minutes before last light and to have a realistic ‘Plan B’ to use when it becomes apparent that an intended flight cannot be completed in daylight. It is important, also, for operators and others involved in the operation of aircraft to actively support safety-first pilot decision making.

The ATSB is concerned about the frequency of accidents – many fatal – that involve pilots flying with reduced visual cues. This has been highlighted on the ATSB website as a SafetyWatch priority along with a number of strategies to help manage the risk and links to relevant safety resources.