Key points

  • ATSB has released a second weather-related investigation final report from a fatal general aviation accident this month;
  • It is highly likely cloud and visibility conditions resulted in the pilot experiencing a loss of visual reference and probably becoming spatially disoriented;
  • Pushing on into cloud and low visibility when you do not hold the appropriate rating and experience in an aircraft that is not appropriately equipped carries a significant risk of severe spatial disorientation.

Weather-related accidents remain one of the most significant causes of fatal accidents in general aviation, says Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell reiterated the concern with the release of the ATSB’s final report from the investigation into a fatal helicopter accident in Kosciuszko National Park on 3 April this year.

One of 7 helicopters taking part in a flying tour, a Bell 206L-4 LongRanger, registered VH-PRW, departed with a pilot and passenger on board, for a visual flight rules (VFR) flight from a private property at Majura, near Canberra, to Mangalore, Victoria, with a planned refuelling stop in Tumut.

The weather forecast indicated low cloud, rain and associated reduced visibility on the planned route, and 2 of the helicopters diverted to Wagga Wagga, due to weather while 4 others landed near Wee Jasper, to Canberra’s north-west.

The pilot of VH-PRW elected to continue until they encountered poor weather conditions and landed in open terrain alongside Long Plain Road in the Brindabella region, west of Canberra and to the south of Wee Jasper, shortly before noon, the investigation report details (pictured).

About three hours later, at 1453 local time, the helicopter departed the interim landing site at low level, in overcast conditions with low cloud and light rain.

At about 1525, recorded data showed that the helicopter commenced a rapid climb and shortly after, entered a steep left descending turn which continued until it impacted terrain at an elevation of 4,501 ft.

A search was initiated the next day with the accident site located later that evening. The helicopter was destroyed, and both occupants were fatally injured.

The pilot held a private pilot licence (helicopter) and did not hold an instrument rating, and the helicopter was not approved for instrument flight.

“The pilot initially made the right decision and landed the helicopter,” noted Mr Mitchell.

“However, you’re only as safe as your last decision, and the pilot’s then decision to launch again and push on – for reasons that we will never fully comprehend – put the helicopter into a dangerous environment with powerful and misleading orientation sensations and no visual cues.

“It is highly likely these cloud and visibility conditions resulted in the pilot experiencing a loss of visual reference and probably becoming spatially disoriented. Tragically, this led to a loss of control of the helicopter and an unsurvivable collision with terrain.”

This investigation report is the second the ATSB has released this month into an accident where a VFR pilot likely encountered low visibility conditions, before becoming spatially disorientated leading to a loss of control of their aircraft.

The ATSB is also currently investigating other fatal accidents where the weather conditions are under consideration, including the collision with terrain of an Airbus Helicopters EC130 T3 near Mount Disappointment, Victoria on 31 March 2022 where a pilot and four passengers were killed.

In 2018, following the final report release into another fatal helicopter accident involving VFR into IMC conditions, the ATSB, in conjunction with CASA and the Australian Helicopter Industry Association launched the ‘Don’t Push it, LAND IT – when it’s not right in flight’ safety campaign encouraging helicopter pilots to conduct a precautionary landing rather than push on into abnormal situations.

“Don’t push on,” Mr Mitchell urged visual flight rules pilots.

“Pushing on into cloud and low visibility when you do not hold the appropriate rating and experience carries a significant risk of severe spatial disorientation and can affect any pilot, no matter what their level of experience.”

 In the decade from 1 November 2012 to 1 November 2022, 97 VFR into IMC occurrences in Australian airspace were reported to the ATSB. Of those, 11 were accidents resulting in 22 fatalities.

Mr Mitchell stressed the importance of planning ahead to avoid deteriorating weather.

“Ensure you have alternate plans in case of an unexpected deterioration in the weather and make timely decisions to turn back or divert,” he said.

“And know your limits. As a visual flight rules pilot the use of a ‘personal minimums’ checklist helps to control and manage flight risks through identifying risk factors that include marginal weather conditions.

The ATSB continues to see this category of accident happening,” Mr Mitchell noted.

“In fact, this is the second final report we’ve published this month into a fatal accident where a visually rated pilot has likely become spatial disorientated and collided with terrain.

“Please, only fly in environments that do not exceed your capabilities, and most importantly, don’t push it, land it. Or, just don’t go.”

Read the report: VFR into IMC and collision with terrain involving Bell Helicopter 206L-4, VH-PRW 33 km north‑west of Adaminaby, New South Wales, on 3 April 2022

Also read the ‘Avoidable Accidents’ publication Accidents involving Visual Flight Rules Pilots in instrument Meteorological Conditions

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