ATSB Warns VFR Pilots About Flying in Conditions They're Not Trained For

A new report about a fatal 2016 helicopter crash "reflects an ongoing problem in aviation – some pilots are continuing to fly into conditions they are not equipped for and not trained for," the agency explained Dec. 18

Upon issuing a new report Dec. 18 about a fatal helicopter crash in April 2016, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau is warning daytime VFR pilots in the country to plan to arrive at their destination at least 10 minutes before last light and to have a realistic "plan B" ready for when it becomes apparent that the intended flight cannot be completed in daylight hours.

The report "reflects an ongoing problem in aviation – some pilots are continuing to fly into conditions they are not equipped for and not trained for," the agency explained.

The report concerns an April 7, 2016, incident when two Robinson R22 helicopters, each carrying a pilot and a passenger, were flying south and returning to Mossman, Queensland, after a day spent fishing. "They had taken off late in the afternoon, intending to fly back directly, but weather and winds had slowed their progress and they stopped at Cooktown in order to refuel," according to the agency. The aircraft departed Cooktown at around last light, intending to track via the coast. Neither pilot was qualified to fly at night or in low-visibility conditions that would require instrument flying, and the helicopters were not equipped with an artificial horizon instrument and lacked other equipment for flight at night under Australian regulations.

"As the flights progressed, the light from the sun continued to decrease and there was no moon," the agency reported. "The coastal route between Cooktown and Mossman has few settlements and from halfway, most of the coastline is part of the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park. It is a remote area with little or no ground lighting. The passenger in one of the helicopters, concerned by the darkness, suggested landing on the beach. The pilot did not answer but it appeared to the passenger that they might be descending to land. The passenger saw the ocean more clearly, just before the helicopter impacted the water. The passenger was able to release himself from the helicopter and reach the surface, and the tide carried him to the beach where he made contact with campers. Unaware of the accident, the other helicopter continued to Mosman. A search was initiated and the missing aircraft was located two days later, about 400 m offshore, in about 10 m of water. The pilot was not located."

Stuart Macleod, director Transport Safety at ATSB, said accidents involving visual flight at night are an ongoing concern in Australian aviation. "The consequences of losing visual reference while flying are usually fatal," he said. "Over the years, we have investigated over thirty accidents there were the result of visual flight at night. Those accidents have resulted in over fifty fatalities."

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