Aviation safety investigations & reports

Collision with terrain Cessna 172, VH-PFT, Maingon Bay (9 km south of Port Arthur), Tasmania, on 29 December 2014

Investigation number:
Status: Completed
Investigation completed

Final Report

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What happened

At 1748 Australian Eastern Daylight-saving Time on 29 December 2014, a Cessna 172S aircraft, registered VH‑PFT, departed Cambridge Airport, Tasmania to photograph yachts participating in the 2014 Sydney Hobart race as they made their way around the southern coast of the Tasman Peninsula. On board the aircraft were the pilot and a photographer.

At about 1815 the aircraft commenced low-level photographic runs on yachts to the east of Cape Raoul. Shortly after completing a run on one yacht at a height of about 50 ft, the aircraft entered a steep climbing turn. The aircraft had almost completed a 180° turn when the upper (right) wing dropped sharply while the aircraft’s nose pitched down to almost vertical. The aircraft impacted the water’s surface in an almost vertical nose down attitude with wings about level. Both aircraft occupants were fatally injured and the aircraft was seriously damaged.

What the ATSB found

As a result of the steep climbing turn, the aircraft’s upper wing aerodynamically stalled, resulting in a rapid rotation out of the turn. The steep pitch attitude indicated that, because of the stalled upper wing, the aircraft entered a spin. There was insufficient height for the pilot to recover the aircraft. The steep climbing manoeuvre was not in accordance with the pilot’s training for low-level flight. Cessna identified that any C172 type aircraft that enters a stall/spin condition will require significant height to recover.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority had issued the operator with a dispensation that permitted low-level flight down to 150 ft above obstacles. Low-level photographic operations on yachts conducted by the operator had been consistently flown at heights down to 50 ft. Although the aircraft was being operated at a height lower than that authorised by the dispensation, that in itself was not likely to have contributed to the accident.

The ATSB examined the role of the operators’ Safety Management System (SMS). While it was not established that the safety risk management processes and practices directly contributed to the occurrence, there were aspects that the operator could consider working towards to more effectively identify all key operational risks.

What's been done as a result

The operator advised that it has ceased low-level photography flights.

Safety message

Turning manoeuvres at or close to the aircraft’s critical angle of attack, or stall speed, if poorly handled, can result in a stall that will probably result in the aircraft entering a spin. This is particularly true for aircraft under 5,700 kg. The normally benign stalling characteristics of these aircraft types are exacerbated by the spin entry, which results in a steep pitch down and rotation towards the stalled wing. Recovery from this condition will take a considerable amount of altitude, dependant on the speed of response by the pilot and the use of appropriate control inputs.

Photograph of VH-PFT

Source: Aircraft operator

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The occurrence


Safety analysis


Sources and submissions



Updated: 27 January 2015

At 1748 Eastern Daylight-saving Time[1] on 29 December 2014, a Cessna 172S aircraft, registered VH‑PFT, with a pilot and photographer on board departed Cambridge Airport, Tasmania on an aerial work flight. The purpose of the flight was to photograph yachts participating in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2014 as they sailed around the southern coast of the Tasman Peninsula and into Storm Bay en route to Hobart.

The pilot of the aircraft had completed a number of low-level passes on various yachts in the vicinity of Storm Bay before commencing a low-level pass from a southerly direction on the yacht Mistraal. After passing abeam Mistraal, the aircraft continued on its northerly track for about 20 seconds and then commenced what witnesses described as a level, steep left turn. Witnesses stated that shortly after commencing the turn, the aircraft’s nose dropped sharply and the aircraft descended rapidly, impacting the surface of the ocean.

Mistraal’s crew turned their yacht towards the aircraft, which could be seen mostly submerged with the tail section protruding above the surface of the water and, at 1817, notified the yacht race controllers of the accident by radio. However, the aircraft completely submerged before Mistraal could arrive at the location and a Mistraal crewmember marked the position of the aircraft using onboard global positioning system equipment. Witnesses described the weather at the time of the accident as being fine, with a light wind from the south-west.

A number of other nearby yachts also diverted to render assistance after observing the aircraft impact the water or in response to the emergency broadcast from the Mistraal crew. A police vessel arrived at the site to coordinate the search and rescue activities approximately 20 minutes after the accident was first reported.

The aircraft was recovered from about 90 m of water on 6 January 2015 by Tasmania Police and transported to Hobart. The aircraft occupants were fatally injured and the aircraft seriously damaged.[2]

Initial inspection of the aircraft wreckage has not identified any mechanical failures that may have contributed to the accident. Damage to the aircraft structure confirmed that it impacted the water in a steep, nose-down attitude (Figure 1). A number of aircraft components, including onboard recording media, were retained for technical analysis at the ATSB’s facilities in Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory.

Figure 1: Aircraft wreckage


The investigation is continuing and will include:

  • examination of the recovered aircraft components, including recorded data
  • an assessment of the weather in the area at the time
  • a review of the operator’s procedures, in particular for low-level and photographic flights
  • a review of relevant human factors issues.



The information contained in this web update is released in accordance with section 25 of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 and is derived from the initial investigation of the occurrence. Readers are cautioned that new evidence will become available as the investigation progresses that will enhance the ATSB's understanding of the accident as outlined in this web update. As such, no analysis or findings are included in this update.


[1]     Eastern Daylight-saving Time (EDT) was Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) + 11 hours.

[2]     In accordance with Regulation 1.3 of the Transport Safety Investigation Regulations 2003, serious damage sustained by a transport vehicle can include the destruction of the vehicle.


General details
Date: 29 December 2014   Investigation status: Completed  
Time: 1747 EDT   Investigation level: Defined - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): Storm Bay near Port Arthur    
State: Tasmania   Occurrence type: Collision with terrain  
Release date: 21 July 2016   Occurrence category: Accident  
Report status: Final   Highest injury level: Fatal  

Aircraft details

Aircraft details
Aircraft manufacturer Cessna Aircraft Company  
Aircraft model 172S  
Aircraft registration VH-PFT  
Serial number 172S10759  
Type of operation Aerial Work  
Sector Piston  
Damage to aircraft Substantial  
Departure point Cambridge Airport, Tas  
Last update 14 November 2018