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Bird strike caused fatal July 2022 Bell helicopter crash

written by Staff reporter | May 15, 2023

The tail boom of VH-ZMF was severed by the main rotor following a birdstrike in July 2022. (Image: ATSB)

The ATSB has warned pilots to be more wary of birdstrikes after an impact with a wedge-tailed eagle brought down a Bell 206L-1 LongRanger helicopter near Sydney last July.

The pilot of the LongRanger, VH-ZMF, was killed when the helicopter crashed on 9 July, 2022, after colliding with the eagle just below the front left windscreen, which according to the ATSB resulted in the aircraft breaking up due to the pilot’s reaction.

“The pilot was likely startled by sighting the bird or the helicopter striking the bird, reacting via abrupt control inputs,” said ATSB Director Transport Safety Dr Stuart Godley.

“Unfortunately, these inputs led to the main rotor striking and severing the tail boom, and the helicopter breaking up in flight.”

There were 212 birdstrikes on helicopters reported to the ATSB in the five years between 2018 and 2022, though this was the only incident that resulted in the loss of the aircraft. Across all sectors of aviation, 24,106 birdstrikes were reported to ATSB in the 15 years between 2008 and 2022.


“Birdstrike is sometimes an unavoidable and relatively common hazard for all aviation operations, one which is more prevalent at lower altitudes,” Dr Godley said.

“A sound lookout and visual scanning processes, as well as avoidance of low-level flight and expected areas of large concentrations of birds are key to reducing the likelihood of birdstrike.”

Several witnesses described seeing the helicopter enter into a rapid banking turn to the right while pitching up, and hearing several rotor beats change tone before a final louder noise.

Witnesses then recalled the helicopter pitching and rolling while descending, with one witness describing separation of the main rotor blades from the helicopter.

The main fuselage subsequently impacted the ground below the ridge in an area of open farmland. The pilot was fatally injured and the helicopter was destroyed by a post-impact fire.

At the time of the accident the weather conditions were described as sunny, with light winds, blue skies and little cloud. However, an assessment of the time of day (about 1145am) and sun position relative to the aircraft’s altitude and track direction indicated that the helicopter was flying directly into the sun.

Further, due to the size and shape of the helicopter’s windscreen, the sun was almost directly at the top of centre of the pilot’s field of view.

The accident also occurred as the helicopter approached the control boundary for airspace surrounding the nearby Richmond air base, requiring the pilot to change radio frequencies. This meant the pilot needed to shift their vision and attention from outside of the cockpit to inside the cockpit to change the frequency on the radio.

“It was unlikely that the pilot saw or had time to avoid the wedgetail eagle due to sun glare and the required radio frequency change,” said Dr Godley.

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