The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has discontinued its investigation into a light aircraft collision with terrain in Queensland’s Clarke Ranges, after determining the pilot was not qualified to conduct the accident flight.

On 2 April 2023, a pilot and passenger departed from Natal Downs Station for a private flight to the Lakeside Airpark, south of the Whitsundays, in a Piper Cherokee single-engine light aircraft.

A search and rescue operation commenced after the aircraft failed to arrive and, the following day, wreckage was located on a steep slope at an elevation of 1,913 ft. The pilot and passenger were fatally injured, and the aircraft was destroyed.

A discontinuation notice published today on the ATSB’s website notes the aircraft departed in good weather for visual flight, but flew into poor conditions, including low cloud around the Clarke Ranges, where the topography was substantially more rugged and elevated than the coastal or inland portions of the planned route.

Evidence gathered from the accident site suggested the aircraft impacted the ground intact.

A review of records established the pilot did not hold an aeroplane pilot’s licence (either a Recreational Pilot Licence or Private Pilot Licence) required to conduct the flight.

Records from the flying school where the pilot trained showed they had completed 30.4 hours of flight instruction between November 2021 and November 2022, including 2.9 hours on the Piper Cherokee.

On that basis, the ATSB determined there was limited safety benefit in continuing to direct resources at this investigation when compared with other priorities.

“Licencing regulations administered by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority are designed to ensure pilots are properly trained and qualified to manage challenges likely to be encountered during flying operations,” ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said.

“This includes training intended to teach pilots to identify and manage situations presented by adverse weather, both at the pre-flight planning phase and during flight.

“When pilots operate outside the licensing regulations, they remove built-in safety defences,” Mr Mitchell said.

Despite the investigation being discontinued, Mr Mitchell emphasised some important safety lessons.

“This accident highlights the importance of following the standards for the operation and maintenance of aircraft to ensure the safety of flight, and further demonstrates that weather continues to remain one of the most significant causes of accidents in general aviation,” he said.

“The ATSB encourages all pilots, regardless of qualification or experience level, to develop the knowledge and skills required to avoid unintentional operations into adverse weather.”

Pilots are encouraged to review the ATSB publication Avoidable Accidents No. 4, Accidents involving Visual Flight Rules Pilots (VFR) in instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC).

Read the discontinuation notice: Collision with terrain involving Piper PA-28-180, VH-PXR, 26 km west of Lakeside Airpark, Queensland, on 2 April 2023.

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