Key points:

  • Preliminary report - the investigation into the accident is continuing
  • A wedge-tailed eagle bird carcass was located near the accident site
  • No pre-accident defects were identified with flight controls, aircraft structure or the engine

A wedge-tailed eagle bird carcass was located near the accident site of Bell LongRanger helicopter which experienced an in-flight break-up near Maroota, New South Wales on 9 July 2022, according to an Australian Transport Safety Bureau preliminary report.

The report details factual information from the early evidence collection phase of the investigation into the accident, and does not contain analysis or findings, which will be detailed in the investigation’s final report.

The Bell 206L1 LongRanger, registered VH-ZMF, had departed a private helipad in Cattai. The helicopter then climbed to about 700 ft above mean sea level and tracked north towards the planned destination in St Albans.

A witness to the south of Dargle Ridge recalled seeing a helicopter moments before the accident, flying straight and level towards the north, and that weather conditions were good, with clear skies and light winds.

“Several witnesses described then seeing the helicopter enter a rapid banking turn to the right while pitching up,” ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said.

“They heard several rotor beats change tone before a final louder noise.”

Witnesses then recalled the helicopter pitching and rolling while descending, with one witness describing separation of the main rotor blades from the helicopter.

Smoke was then observed rising from the area where the helicopter descended. The helicopter was subsequently found to have been destroyed by a post-impact fire, with the pilot sustaining fatal injuries.

“Site and wreckage examination undertaken by the ATSB determined that the vertical stabiliser, aft section of the tail boom, tail rotor and tail rotor gearbox were severed in flight and found separate to the main wreckage,” Mr Mitchell explained.

“No pre-accident defects were identified with flight controls, aircraft structure or the engine.”

A bird carcass was found to the south-west of the main wreckage site, near a section of rotor tip.

The carcass, the main rotor blade tip and a section of impacted tail boom were recovered from the site for further analysis.

“Testing on the bird carcass and biological residue found on external helicopter surfaces at the main wreckage site identified both as Aquila audax – commonly known as a wedge-tailed eagle,” Mr Mitchell said.

The ATSB’s investigation into the accident is continuing.

“With this evidence indicating a bird strike occurred prior to an in-flight break-up, the investigation moving forward will aim to determine the full sequence of events, and potential safety learnings from this accident,” Mr Mitchell said.

A final report, which will include analysis and findings, will be released at the conclusion of the investigation.

“However, 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,” Mr Mitchell said.

Read the preliminary report: In-flight break-up involving a Bell 206L-1 LongRanger, registered VH-ZMF, near Maroota, NSW, on 9 July 2022

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