Sequence of events
The ATSB is still determining the final sequence of events in the lead-up to the accident. The limited information provided in this preliminary factual report is based on the evidence collected to date, including witness accounts. The final sequence of events will be determined by the collection, analysis and examination of further evidence.
On 21 March 2018, at about 1500 Eastern Standard Time, the pilot and four passengers of a Eurocopter (Airbus Helicopters) EC120 B helicopter, registered VH-WII and operated by Whitsunday Air Services Pty Ltd, departed Hamilton Island Airport, Queensland, on a charter flight. The flight included flying over coral reefs and beaches, then landing on the Hardy Reef floating helicopter landing site (HLS) (Figure 1). The HLS (pontoon) was located about 72 km north‑north‑east of the Hamilton Island Airport situated between Hardy Reef and Hook Reef, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Area. After landing, the passengers were to be ferried from the HLS by a small boat to ‘Reefworld’, a large pontoon used to view aquatic life and a base for water sports. This was the second flight that day, by the pilot in VH-WII, to Hardy Reef. The earlier flight was conducted without incident.
Source: Google earth, modified by the ATSB
While approaching the pontoon, at about 1535, the pilot reported noticing a warning message illuminate in the upper vehicle and engine multifunction display (refer to section titled Helicopter information). As this was a high workload phase of flight, the pilot was unable to verify the nature of the warning. However, in response, the pilot elected to conduct a go-around. When the helicopter was at an altitude of about 40 ft (12 m) above the pontoon, the pilot recalled feeling a ‘thud’ and the nose of the helicopter yawed sharply left (anticlockwise from above). In an attempt to arrest the yaw, the pilot reported that he made a number of control inputs, which included lowering the collective and pushing the cyclic forward and to the left. The pilot was unable to regain control of the helicopter and it collided with the water. A passenger reported that soon after impact with the water, the helicopter rolled onto its right side in a mostly inverted orientation.
The pilot and two of the rear passengers exited the helicopter soon after the collision. After swimming free from the upturned helicopter, the two passengers reported donning their life jackets from a waist belt mounted pouch.
The remaining rear passenger was evacuated by one of the surviving passengers and the front passenger (in the copilot seat) was evacuated from the helicopter by the pilot. At about that time, personnel from Reefworld arrived and assisted with first aid and resuscitation until emergency services arrived. The two passengers that were unable to exit the helicopter unassisted were fatally injured. The two other passengers sustained minor injuries, and the pilot was uninjured.
The helicopter was observed in a semi-submersed state for some time after the occupants had been evacuated and was drifting inverted in a northerly direction away from the landing pontoon. The helicopter’s emergency float system was not deployed (refer to section titled Helicopter information).
On 26 and 27 March 2018, under water sonar operations were initiated by the Queensland Police Service in an attempt to identify the helicopter wreckage location. The sonar detected what was believed to be a man-made object in about 58 m of water (Figure 2) about 1.2 km north‑north‑west of the landing pontoon. The location was consistent with the tidal flow and wind conditions at the time of the accident. The length of the object was about 11 m, which was also consistent with the length of VH-WII.
Source: Queensland Police Service, modified by the ATSB
The pilot held a current Commercial Pilot (Helicopter) Licence and had completed a flight review on 7 March 2018. The pilot also held a Class 1 Aviation Medical Certificate which was valid until 24 May 2018. Distance vision correction was to be worn and reading correction was to be available while exercising the privileges of the licence.
The Eurocopter (Airbus Helicopters) EC120B ‘Colibri’ is a five-seat helicopter fitted with a single Turbomeca Arrius 2F turboshaft engine. The helicopter incorporates several of Eurocopter’s trademark technologies including a 3-bladed Spheriflex® main rotor head and their 8-bladed Fenestron® anti-torque tail rotor.
Cockpit instrumentation includes a dual screen vehicle and engine multifunction display. The display monitors and displays a number of operational parameters including information on engine and electrical systems, fuel quantity, and outside air temperature.
The pilot and copilot (or front passenger) positions have high-back energy absorbing seats with four-point safety restraints. Doors adjacent to the front seated occupants can be jettisoned. In the rear, there is a three-person capacity energy absorbing bench seat fitted with three-point safety restraints, and a sliding door located adjacent to the left rear seated passenger.
VH-WII (Figure 3) was manufactured in 2009 and first registered in Australia on 18 February 2010. Whitsunday Air Services Pty Ltd has been the registered operator since 19 May 2015.
VH-WII was fitted with landing gear skids equipped with an emergency float system. The skid floats were capable of inflation when the float deployment lever safety pin was removed and the lever was activated by the pilot. The float deployment lever was attached to the helicopter’s collective and could only be triggered if the safety pin was removed.
Source: CQ Plane Spotting
Whitsunday Air Services Pty Ltd conducts a significant number of flights to the reef and surrounding area utilising a fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft fitted with various floatation systems. A Civil Aviation Safety Authority air operator’s certificate (AOC) was re-issued to the operator on 17 April 2015, valid until 30 April 2018. The AOC stipulated that the certificate holder was authorised to conduct charter and aerial work operations in the EC120 helicopter in Australian territory.
The nearest Bureau of Meteorology weather station was located at Hamilton Island Airport. At 1530 on the day of the accident, the routine report of the meteorological conditions at the airport indicated that the wind was 24 kt (45 km/h) from the south-east.
Hardy Reef floating helicopter landing site
The Hardy Reef floating HLS consisted of two pontoons (Figure 4). The pontoons were capable of accommodating two helicopters each. The pilot of VH-WII was attempting to land at ‘pontoon 2’, the most northern pontoon.
The operator’s HLS instructions noted that birds were a known hazard on the pontoons. Further, pilots were instructed to verify the wind conditions by observing the flags at Reefworld, but they could approach and land at the pontoons in any direction, depending on wind direction.
The ATSB investigation is continuing and will include consideration of the following:
- an underwater survey using a remotely operated vehicle to establish if the man-made object located by sonar is the accident helicopter
- depending on the outcome of the under water survey, the ATSB may recover the wreckage for inspection and recovery of recorded information
- helicopter maintenance history
- helicopter performance and handling characteristics
- pilot qualifications, training, experience and medical information
- preperation of passengers, including briefings, for possible emergencies
- survivability of the accident
- operator policies and normal and emergency procedures
- Civil Aviation Safety Authority operator surveillance records
- environmental influences
- similar occurrences in Australia and internationally.
The ATSB will continue to consult the engine and airframe type certificate holders. Accredited representatives from the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA), and their advisor Airbus Helicopters, have been appointed to participate in the investigation.
The ATSB acknowledges the support of the Queensland Police Service, Cruise Whitsundays, the management and staff of the Reef View Hotel and Palm Bungalows, and Hamilton Island Enterprises for their assistance during this investigation.
The information contained in this preliminary report 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.
- Eastern Standard Time is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) +10 hours.
- Collective: a primary helicopter flight control that simultaneously affects the pitch of all blades of a lifting rotor. Collective input is the main control for vertical velocity.
- Cyclic: a primary helicopter flight control that is similar to an aircraft control column. Cyclic input tilts the main rotor disc, varying the attitude of the helicopter and hence the lateral direction.
- The pilot was already wearing a life jacket as part of the standard operating equipment specified by the operator, however, elected not to inflate his lifejacket.
- Emergency floatation system: inflatables fitted to the helicopter to provide water buoyancy in an emergency.