Final report


What happened

On 7 April 2016, the pilots of two Robinson R22 helicopters flew from Mossman, Queensland to various fishing locations to the north with a passenger in each helicopter. Late in the afternoon, the pilots commenced the direct return flight to Mossman. However, the pilots encountered weather and winds that slowed their progress and required them to refuel at Cooktown.

The pilots departed Cooktown at last light intending to track via the coast to Mossman. As the flights progressed, the light available from the sun continued to decrease and there was no moon. There were also patches of cloud and rain in the general area.

Shortly after passing Cape Tribulation, in dark night conditions, one of the helicopters, registered VH-YLY (YLY), collided with the sea. The passenger was injured in the accident but was able to reach the shore and notify emergency services. Unaware of the accident, the occupants of the other helicopter continued to Mossman.

A search was initiated and the missing helicopter was located on 9 April 2016 in about 400 m offshore in about 10 m of water. The pilot was not located.

What the ATSB found

The ATSB found that the pilot of YLY, who was only qualified to operate in day-VFR conditions, departed on a night flight and continued towards the destination in deteriorating visibility until inadvertently allowing the helicopter to descend into water.

The ATSB also identified the following other factors that collectively increased risk:

  • an unapproved modification attached to the skids of YLY
  • exceedance of weight and balance limitations
  • non-carriage of life jackets
  • incomplete operational information
  • overdue calibration checks of the helicopter pitot-static system and altimeter.

Safety message

To avoid the usually fatal consequences of losing visual reference, 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 the intended flight cannot be completed in daylight. A further consideration for pilot decision-making about flying conditions is the degree to which passengers are also exposed to risk.

Key messages from the ATSB Avoidable Accidents series report No.7 highlight that some nights and some terrain are darker than others, and inadvertently flying into instrument meteorological conditions is also harder to avoid at night. Pilots need to be mindful of similar messages provided in pilot operating handbooks that refer to risks associated with loss of visibility and night flight in bad weather.

The occurrence

Sources and submissions