Aviation safety investigations & reports

Collision with water involving Cessna 182, VH-WNR, north of Moreton Island, Queensland, on 22 January 2020

Investigation number:
Status: Active
Investigation in progress

Preliminary Report

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 update. As such, no analysis or findings are included.

The occurrence

On 22 January 2020, at about 1530 Eastern Standard Time,[1] a Cessna 182Q, registered VH‑WNR, took off from Caloundra aerodrome, Queensland. The pilot was conducting a private sightseeing flight with one passenger on board.

The aircraft flew south to the light aircraft lane at Woorim on Bribie Island, climbing to transit to Moreton Island. At 1606, the pilot reported on the Brisbane air traffic control (ATC) frequency that the aircraft’s position was overhead Tangalooma resort, Moreton Island, at 2,500 ft. He also stated that his intention was to track south to the end of Moreton Island and then north up the eastern side of the island.

Recorded radar data at 5-second intervals indicated that, from about 1613, the aircraft flew north along Moreton Island’s eastern coastline at 1400–1500 ft above mean sea level (AMSL) with a groundspeed of 100–110 kt (Figure 1). The wind at the time was about 19 kt from the north-north-east, so the aircraft’s airspeed would have been about 120–130 kt.

Figure 1: Preliminary representation of the flight path of VH-WNR

Figure 1: Preliminary representation of the flight path of VH-WNR. 
Source: Google Earth, modified by the ATSB.

Source: Google Earth, modified by the ATSB.

At 1624, the aircraft passed the northern tip of the island at about 1,100 ft in a shallow descent (about 160 ft/minute). It then continued north-east towards Flinders Reef, 6 km away (Figure 2), at a similar airspeed and descent rate.

Figure 2: Preliminary representation of the flight path of VH-WNR, near Flinders Reef

Figure 2: Preliminary representation of the flight path of VH-WNR, near Flinders Reef.
Source: Google Earth, modified by the ATSB.

Source: Google Earth, modified by the ATSB.

The aircraft’s descent rate began to increase from 1625:09. At 1626:26, the pilot made a MAYDAY[2] call on the Brisbane ATC frequency, without identifying the nature of the problem. At this time, the aircraft was east of Flinders Reef and descending at about 1,400 ft/minute through 300 ft with a groundspeed of about 115 kt. The air traffic controller attempted to establish contact with the pilot; however, no further transmissions from the aircraft were received.

The aircraft’s transponder continued to transmit. Later analysis of the recorded radar data indicated that the aircraft probably continued north-east for 15–20 seconds after the MAYDAY call before colliding with water. There were no witnesses.

An aerial and marine search was initiated. The aircraft was located on the ocean floor on 29 January 2020, north-east of Flinders Reef. The pilot and passenger have not been located.


Pilot information

  • The pilot was reported to have flown in Africa and Australia decades earlier. He then had an extended break from flying and resumed in late 2019. After conducting 13.5 hours flying training he was reissued a Private Pilot Licence (Aeroplane) on 17 October 2019 with a class rating for single engine aeroplanes.
  • The pilot held a Class 2 Aviation Medical Certificate that was issued on 17 October 2019 and valid until 17 October 2021.
  • The available information from the pilot’s records indicated that he had about 1,700 hours total aeronautical experience and had previously held night VFR[3] and instrument ratings. He was also reported to have significant experience on the Cessna 182 type and had flown VH‑WNR several times over the previous week, including around Moreton Island. His last flight prior to the accident flight was on 19 January.

Aircraft information

  • The aircraft (Figure 3) was manufactured in 1978 and was first registered in Australia in the same year.
  • The aircraft was fitted a Continental O-470-U piston engine, installed new in December 2013. It had been operated for approximately 742 hours before the accident flight.
  • The aircraft was operated by a flying school. It was privately hired to the pilot for the flight.
  • The aircraft’s last periodic (100 hourly) inspection was conducted on 21 August 2019 and the last maintenance release was issued on the same date. At the time of the accident, the aircraft had about 3,318 hours total time in service and 73 hours time in service since the previous periodic inspection.
  • The last maintenance conducted on the aircraft was on 21-22 January 2020, when the alternator and regulator were replaced to rectify an electrical defect reported by another pilot on 20 January.

Figure 3: Cessna 182, registered VH-WNR, in 2019

Figure 3: Cessna 182, registered VH-WNR, in 2019.
Source: Aircraft operator.

Source: Aircraft operator.

Site and wreckage

  • The wreckage was located in about 30 m of water. The engine and propeller were found about 10 m away from the main wreckage.
  • The Queensland Police Service (QPS) took underwater video footage of the wreckage on 29–30 January 2020. The ATSB examination of the video footage identified that the aircraft was destroyed by impact with water (Figure 4). Damage to the cabin indicated that the impact was unlikely to be survivable. One of the front seats was found floating some distance from the wreckage, and the other front seat was not located. Both of the front seats’ seat belts were found to be attached to the airframe and latched. All major aircraft components were accounted for in the video footage.
  • On 6 February, with assistance from the QPS and the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, the ATSB recovered some aircraft components including the engine, propeller and instruments for examination. No pre-existing defects were identified during workshop examinations of the engine and propeller.
  • The ATSB identified that the only item on the aircraft that was likely to record any data was a J.P. Instruments EDM-700 engine monitoring recorder. The ATSB recovered the instrument and obtained data from it. Further analysis will be required to determine whether the data is relevant to the accident flight.

Figure 4: Wreckage of VH-WNR on ocean floor

Figure 4: Wreckage of VH-WNR on ocean floor.
Source: Queensland Police Service.

Source: Queensland Police Service.

Meteorological information

  • Relevant aviation weather forecast(s) indicated good visual flying conditions would have existed at the time of the flight.
  • The nearest weather station to the aircraft’s flight path was at Cape Moreton, at the northern end of Moreton Island and a height of 328 ft AMSL. Observations taken at 1600 and 1630 showed the wind speed was 19 kt, gusting to 24 kt. No precipitation was recorded. The temperature at 1630 was 27.1 °C, dew point 24.9 °C and QNH 1,009.5 hPa. Other nearby weather stations recorded similar observations.
  • Satellite images taken at 1620 and 1630 indicated no significant cloud in the vicinity of the northern end of Moreton Island. The 1630 METAR (meteorological aerodrome report) for Brisbane Airport, 29 NM south-west of Cape Moreton, reported few cloud at 2,000 ft and broken cloud[4] at 27,000 ft.
  • A pilot, who was flying over Bribie Island at about 1600, recalled the visibility over Tangalooma on Moreton Island was clear.

Further investigation

The investigation is continuing and will include further examination and analysis of the:

  • recovered components including engines and propellers
  • aircraft’s maintenance and operational records
  • video footage of the wreckage
  • pilot qualifications, experience and medical history
  • recorded radio, radar and engine monitoring data.

Should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken.

A final report will be released at the conclusion of the investigation.


  1. Eastern Standard Time (EST) is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) + 10 hours.
  2. MAYDAY: an internationally recognised radio call announcing a distress condition where an aircraft or its occupants are being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and the flight crew require immediate assistance.
  3. 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.
  4. Cloud cover: in aviation, cloud cover is reported using words that denote the extent of the cover – ‘few’ indicates 1–2 oktas (or eighths) is covered, ‘scattered’ (SCT) indicates 3–4 oktas is covered, ‘broken’ (BKN) indicates 5–7 oktas is covered, and ‘overcast’ (OVC) indicates that 8 oktas is covered.

Initial summary

Initial summary

The ATSB is investigating the collision with water involving a Cessna 182, VH-WNR, off Moreton Island, Queensland, on 22 January 2020.

The aircraft departed Caloundra Aerodrome with the pilot and a passenger on board for a private flight, sightseeing around Moreton Island. At 1626, the pilot broadcast a Mayday call. A search and rescue operation was then initiated.

As part of the investigation, the ATSB will examine wreckage recovered from the aircraft and review air traffic control recordings. The ATSB will also interview any witnesses and review aircraft records, pilot records and meteorological information.

A report will be released at the end of the investigation. Should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant stakeholders so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken.

General details
Date: 22 January 2020   Investigation status: Active  
Time: 1626 AEST   Investigation level: Defined - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): 6 km north-east of Moreton Island   Investigation phase: Final report: Drafting  
State: Queensland   Occurrence type: Collision with terrain  
Release date: 15 April 2020   Occurrence category: Accident  
Report status: Preliminary   Highest injury level: Fatal  
Anticipated completion: 4th Quarter 2021    

Aircraft details

Aircraft details
Aircraft manufacturer Cessna Aircraft Company  
Aircraft model 182Q  
Aircraft registration VH-WNR  
Serial number 18266543  
Operator Inspire Aviation  
Type of operation Private  
Sector Piston  
Damage to aircraft Destroyed  
Departure point Caloundra, Queensland  
Destination Caloundra, Queensland  
Last update 19 July 2021