The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has released a preliminary report from its ongoing investigation into the collision with water of a fire-fighting helicopter at a property in Tarome, in south-east Queensland.

The preliminary report details factual information established in the early evidence collection phase of the ongoing investigation.

It notes that on 20 September 2023, the pilot of a Bell 204B was tasked with fire-fighting operations utilising a 1,200 L bucket with a short line.

After flying from a property near Amberley to another property in Tarome, the pilot commenced picking up their first load of water from a dam.

“The pilot reported an unusual noise and that the helicopter ‘kicked’,” ATSB Director Transport Safety Kerri Hughes said.

“Remaining in the hover, the pilot observed all engine indications were normal and the bucket and line were in the appropriate place. However, concerned something was not right, they elected to dump the water and initiate a climb.”

Within about 10-15 seconds, as engine power was being applied, and the water was being released from the bucket, the pilot heard what they described as a ‘loud roaring’ sound as the helicopter pitched up, yawed, and subsequently had a reduction in power.

The helicopter rolled left and impacted the water at low speed. The pilot sustained minor injuries and the helicopter was destroyed.

“Almost immediately after the impact, the helicopter inverted, started to fill with water, and sink rapidly,” Ms Hughes said.

The pilot removed their seatbelt and helmet, and attempted to open the front left door but could not open it with either the normal or emergency release handles.

“When the helicopter was almost fully submerged, the pilot swam to the rear of the cabin and tried to open the rear right door but could not open it either, making further attempts to get out by kicking the helicopter windows.

“The pilot then moved to the rear left door and, utilising considerable force, was able to successfully open it.”

Speaking with the ATSB, the pilot stated that familiarity with the helicopter, the open area in the cabin (all seats removed) and HUET (helicopter underwater escape training) all assisted with their ability to successfully escape from the helicopter.

To date, the ATSB’s investigation has involved interviewing the pilot and witnesses, and preliminary examination of the helicopter wreckage.

“As this investigation continues, the ATSB will review and examine the pilot’s training and records, maintenance documentation, and key components of the helicopter,” Ms Hughes said.

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

“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,” Ms Hughes concluded.

Read the preliminary report: Collision with terrain involving Bell 204B, registration VH-EQW, Tarome, Queensland on 20 September 2023

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