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ABC Chopper Report

The following was released today:

ATSB Report on ABC Chopper released this morning

ATSB releases final report into chopper crash which killed ABC crew at Lake Eyre

Updated 14 minutes ago

The Australian Safety Transport Bureau has recommended the rules for flying at night be tightened in the wake of the ABC helicopter crash which claimed three lives at Lake Eyre in August 2011.

Reporter Paul Lockyer, cinematographer John Bean, and pilot Gary Ticehurst were killed in the crash while on assignment to cover Lake Eyre in flood for an ABC documentary.

Today the ATSB released its final report into the crash, saying that spatial disorientation was the major cause of the accident.

“Firstly this was a very dark night which meant that it was more difficult to establish the positioning of the helicopter, we also found that as a result of that spatial disorientation the helicopter went into a downward spiral, crashed into the ground, and sadly the crew died immediately,” ATSB Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan told the ABC.

On the afternoon before the crash the veteran news crew had been filming tourists who were camping on an island at the mouth of Cooper Creek inlet.

They took off at 7:00pm in clear, dark conditions, with a camp fire as visual reference. The moon had not yet risen.

Tourists on the ground told investigators at first the helicopter was flying in the wrong direction to the homestead a 30-minute flight away, where the ABC crew were to stay the night. The helicopter was then seen to turn, and one witness reported seeing a glow before the helicopter disappeared from view.

“As best as we can understand following the sequence of the flights, the helicopter initially went off in the wrong direction, we believe because the GPS was originally wrongly programmed for the flight,” Chief Commissioner Dolan said.

“There was a realisation perhaps from a radio message from people on the ground that they were heading in the wrong direction. The direction of the flight was changed, and we believe at that point there was an attempt to reprogram the GPS.”

The ATSB found that the attempt to reprogram the GPS in-flight was likely to be a contributing factor to the crash.

“We know there must have been distraction, because otherwise there was information from the flight instruments that would have been seen and probably acted upon, so as a contributing factor certainly we think distraction would have been in play.”

Pilot would have had difficulty seeing the horizon in moonless night

Chief Commissioner Dolan said spatial orientation was 80 per cent visual, and it would have been extremely difficult for the pilot to see the horizon.

“When you’re in central Australia after dark and there’s no moon, you can’t see the horizon, you might get a little glimmer from the stars but probably your instrument lights from your aircraft are going to drown that out anyway.

“There’s the quite serious possibility that you can quite progressively be leaning over and not actually detect that’s the case.”

The ATSB took more the two years to release its final report into the crash.

Its investigators worked with researchers from the US Army’s Aeromedical Research Laboratory, who had experience in a similar chopper crash investigation in 2005 where spatial disorientation was a major factor.

Investigators were able to recover the helicopter’s GPS, which enabled them to reconstruct the flight path to within seconds of impact.

They identified that the helicopter would have got into trouble less than two and half minutes into the flight, and there was just 20 seconds to determine the problem and what needed to be done.

“With the speed at which this happened it would have been quick, and that’s what we can be grateful for,” Chief Commissioner Dolan told the ABC.

The ATSB says that when it comes to flying in dark night conditions with no light on the ground for a visual reference, the current rules for managing risks fall short of what is required.

“Rather than relying on external reference visual points visually … this is a flight that’s required to be flown based on the instruments in the aircraft, and therefore the flight crew need to be trained in using those instruments to fly the aircraft without external reference.”

Those rules are already in place for charter operators, but not aerial and private operators.

“The key thing we would be saying at this point is treat it as if it was a charter operation,” Chief Commissioner Dolan said.

“This gives the level of safety we think is necessary also for aerial work and private flight.”

According to the ATSB report, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority will now require that helicopter air transport operations with passengers at night will either have to an autopilot or a two-pilot crew.