Aviation safety investigations & reports

Collision with terrain involving BK117 helicopter, VH-JWB, near Ulladulla NSW, on 17 August 2018

Investigation number:
Status: Active
Investigation in progress


Updated: 16 August 2019

The investigation into the collision with terrain involving BK117 helicopter, VH-JWB, near Ulladulla, NSW on 17 August 2018 is continuing.

The investigation is currently in the evidence collection phase. While information is still being gathered, analysis has already commenced on a range of material, including the pilot’s qualifications, experience and medical history, maintenance documentation and witness interviews. A detailed technical inspection of both the helicopter’s engines has also been undertaken by the manufacturer, along with examination of other components.

Once the evidence analysis phase is complete, a report will be drafted and undergo a rigorous internal review to ensure the report findings adequately and accurately reflect the analysis of available evidence. Following the completion of the internal review, a draft of the final report will be sent to all directly involved parties for their comment before the report is finalised and published.

Currently, the anticipated completion and publication release date of the final report is during the fourth quarter of 2019. However, should any critical safety issues be identified during any phase of this investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify those affected and seek safety action to address the issue.

Preliminary report

Preliminary report published: 19 October 2018

What happened

On 17 August 2018, a MBB/Kawasaki BK 117 (BK 117),[1] registered VH-JWB (JWB), was performing aerial work in the Ulladulla area, New South Wales (NSW). The operator had been tasked by the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) to support fire-fighting activites in the Bomberderry area on 15 August 2018, then in the Ulladulla area from 16 August 2018.

On the morning of 17 August 2018, JWB departed Nowra Airport for the Milton Showgrounds, the base for helicopters operating in support of NSW RFS in the Ulladulla area. The pilot was the sole occupant and conducted a number of flights that day, refuelling at 1030 Eastern Standard Time[2] and again at 1225.

In the afternoon, the pilot of JWB, in company with another BK 117, was tasked to assist ground‑based fire crews to extinguish fires near Plot Road, Milton. Both helicopters were operating with a Bambi Bucket (bucket)[3] on a longline. Pilots who were airborne in the same area at the time reported that the wind was 10 to 20 kt from the south east and the visibility was approximately 3 km in the area due to smoke.

After flying a number of circuits between a dam and the fire, the in-company pilot observed JWB depart the dam with a bucket-load of water in a south-easterly direction towards the fire (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Area of fire bombing operations

Figure 1: Area of fire bombing operations

Source: Google Earth

On filling his bucket, the in-company pilot looked for JWB but could not sight the helicopter.

A witness on Plot Road observed the helicopter tracking in a north-easterly direction. A number of witnesses then observed the bucket and longline become tangled in trees at the edge of a clearing, followed by the helicopter colliding with terrain (Figure 2). The pilot was fatally injured and the helicopter was destroyed.

Figure 2: The accident site

The accident site of MBB/Kawasaki BK 117, registered VH-JWB near Ulladulla area, NSW

Source: ATSB

Wreckage examination

On arrival at the accident site, ATSB investigators found the main body of the helicopter inverted in a clearing with the bucket and longline still attached. The bucket was found caught in trees at the edge of the clearing. The tail rotor section was detached and located approximately 21 m from the main wreckage. One main rotor blade had separated from the rotor head and was located approximately 9 m from the helicopter. The other blades remained connected to the main rotor head. Aviation fuel was observed to be leaking from the helicopter; there was no post‑impact fire.

The ATSB recovered a number of components from the accident site for further examination. The helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder, nor was it required to be.

Ongoing investigation

The investigation is continuing and will include consideration of the:

  • pilot’s qualifications, experience and medical history
  • maintenance documentation
  • recovered helicopter components
  • operational documentation
  • witness interviews
  • electronic devices recovered from the aircraft.

The information contained in this update 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.



  1. The MBB/Kawasaki BK 117 is a twin-engined medium utility–transport helicopter jointly developed and manufactured by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm of Germany and Kawasaki of Japan.
  2. Eastern Standard Time (AEST): Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) + 10 hours.
  3. A Bambi Bucket, also known as a helicopter bucket, is a specialised bucket suspended on a cable carried by a helicopter to deliver water for aerial firefighting.
General details
Date: 17 August 2018   Investigation status: Active  
Time: 1400 EST   Investigation level: Defined - click for an explanation of investigation levels  
Location   (show map): near Ulladulla, Jervis Bay SW 38 km   Investigation phase: Evidence collection  
State: New South Wales   Occurrence type: Collision with terrain  
Release date: 19 October 2018   Occurrence category: Accident  
Report status: Preliminary   Highest injury level: Fatal  
Anticipated completion: 1st Quarter 2020    

Aircraft details

Aircraft details
Aircraft manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries  
Aircraft model BK117 B-2  
Aircraft registration VH-JWB  
Serial number 1094  
Operator Sydney Helicopters  
Type of operation Aerial Work  
Sector Helicopter  
Damage to aircraft Destroyed  
Departure point Milton Showgrounds, Ulladulla  
Last update 22 October 2019