Aviation safety investigations & reports

Collision with terrain involving Mooney M20J, VH-DJU, 26 km west of Coffs Harbour Airport, New South Wales, on 20 September 2019

Investigation number:
Status: Active
Investigation in progress


Preliminary report published 7 November 2019

What happened

At about 0640 Eastern Standard Time[1] on 20 September 2019, a Mooney M20J aircraft, registered VH-DJU, departed Murwillumbah New South Wales for a private flight under the visual flight rules (VFR)[2] to Taree New South Wales. On board were the pilot and one passenger.

After departing Murwillumbah, the aircraft climbed to 6,500 ft above mean sea level (AMSL) on a direct track to Taree. At 0717, when the aircraft was positioned north of Grafton, the pilot contacted air traffic control (ATC) and requested a clearance to transit controlled airspace at an altitude of 6,500 ft. The air traffic controller advised him that a clearance to enter controlled airspace was not available at 6,500 ft and provided the option to request clearance from the Coffs Harbour control tower at a lower altitude.

The pilot subsequently contacted the Coffs Harbour control tower and was advised by the controller that due to the extensive cloud cover, the only way to transit the airspace VFR would be at an altitude not above 1,000 ft. The pilot acknowledged this information and advised that he would descend to that altitude.

However, at 0724, the pilot advised the tower controller that he was operating in clear conditions at 4,100 ft AMSL and would remain on that track and request a clearance upon reaching the airspace boundary. The controller acknowledged the request and asked that the pilot report entering controlled airspace. The aircraft did not subsequently enter controlled airspace and no further broadcasts were heard from the aircraft.

A review of recorded ATC information identified that after the pilot reported that he was operating in clear conditions, the aircraft was climbed to about 4,500 ft and continued on a direct track until about 0733. At that time, the aircraft commenced descending at an average rate of about 850 ft per minute until the last recorded position at 0734. The aircraft was last recorded at an altitude of 3,564 ft and a ground speed of 165 kt (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Recorded flight path and accident site

Figure 1: Recorded flight path and accident site. Source: Google Earth and Airservices Australia data, annotated by ATSB

Google earth and Airservices Australia, annotated by ATSB

In response to the aircraft not arriving at Taree as expected, a search was initiated, although it was initially hampered by poor weather in the vicinity of the aircraft’s last known position. The aircraft was subsequently found to have impacted terrain in line with the recorded track, at an elevation of 2,920 ft, about 2.8 km south of the last recorded position. The two persons on board were fatally injured and the aircraft was destroyed.

Aircraft details

The Mooney M20J is a four‑seat, piston-engine aircraft with a two-blade variable-pitch propeller and retractable tricycle landing gear. VH-DJU (serial number 24-1075, Figure 2) was manufactured in 1981 and first registered with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in 2005.

Figure 2: VH-DJU

Figure 2: VH-DJU. Source: Prior aircraft owner

Source: Prior aircraft owner

The pilot purchased the aircraft on 6 July 2019, about 3 months prior to the accident, and had flown about 31 hours in the aircraft. The most recent entry on the maintenance release was 11 days prior to the accident (9 September 2019) and showed that the aircraft had accumulated 3,295 hours’ total time‑in‑service.

Wreckage and site information

The accident site was located on a heavily wooded mountain side, about 26 km west of Coffs Harbour Airport, within the Dorrigo National Park. The highest point in the surrounding area was 3,925 ft (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Accident site

Figure 3: Accident site. Source: ATSB

Source: ATSB

The wreckage trail was on an approximate north to south heading, in line with the last recorded flight path. All aircraft components were accounted for at the site.

On-site examination of the wreckage, surrounding damage to vegetation and ground markings identified that the aircraft impacted trees in about level flight with the landing gear and flaps retracted. The aircraft was severely damaged during the accident, however examination of the wreckage did not identify any pre-impact defects with the engine, flight controls or aircraft structure. Both wing fuel tanks had ruptured and a quantity of fuel had leaked into the soil. There was no fire.

Some aircraft components, instruments and the aircraft log book were recovered from the accident site. These items were taken to the ATSB’s technical facility in Canberra for further examination.

Meteorological details

The Bureau of Meteorology weather station located at Coffs Harbour Airport, 26 km east of the accident site, recorded the following information (cloud levels AMSL) at 0730, 4 minutes prior to the accident:

  • Scattered[3] cloud at 2,218 ft,
  • broken cloud at 2,818 ft and
  • broken cloud at 3,618 ft.
  • At that time, the recorded wind was from the north-west at a speed of 3 kt.

A witness located 10 km south-east of the accident site observed that at the time of the accident, the cloud base was at the base of the mountain range encompassing the accident site.

Further investigation

The investigation is continuing and will include examination of:

  • meteorological conditions and pre‑flight preparation
  • pilot qualifications, experience and medical history
  • recovered aircraft components and instrumentation
  • aircraft maintenance documentation and operational records
  • the provision of air traffic services.


The ATSB acknowledges the assistance of the New South Wales Police Force and National Parks and Wildlife Service during the on‑site phase of this investigation.


The information contained in this 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 update. As such, no analysis or findings are included.


  1. Eastern Standard Time (EST): Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) + 10 hours.
  2. Visual flight rules (VFR): a set of regulations that permit a pilot to operate an aircraft only in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going.
  3. Cloud cover: in aviation, cloud cover is reported using words that denote the extent of the cover – ‘scattered’ indicates that cloud is covering between a quarter and a half of the sky and ‘broken’ indicates that more than half to almost all the sky is covered.
General details
Date: 20 September 2019   Investigation status: Active  
Time: 0734 EST   Investigation level: Defined - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): near Bellingen   Investigation phase: Final report: Approval  
State: New South Wales   Occurrence type: Collision with terrain  
Release date: 07 November 2019   Occurrence category: Accident  
Report status: Preliminary   Highest injury level: Fatal  
Anticipated completion: 4th Quarter 2020    

Aircraft details

Aircraft details
Aircraft manufacturer Mooney Aircraft Corp  
Aircraft model M20J  
Aircraft registration VH-DJU  
Serial number 24-1075  
Operator Private  
Type of operation Private  
Sector Piston  
Damage to aircraft Destroyed  
Departure point Murwillumbah, NSW  
Destination Taree, NSW  
Last update 20 November 2020