CASA has pushed back on allegations that it had failed to adequately investigate the operator of the Robinson R44 helicopter that crashed in Broome in 2020, killing a young girl.
The authority has come under fire over the incident, which killed 12-year-old Amber Jess Millar and the helicopter’s pilot, 40-year-old Troy Thomas, after The Australian obtained documents under FOI suggesting CASA had known of previous reckless conduct by Thomas’s company, Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures, in 2018.
WA Senator Dean Smith has called for an independent inquiry with “full investigative powers” to address what he called a “catalogue of issues around CASA”, saying the authority needs to answer serious questions about its oversight.
“I will be asking CASA officials what they did know at the time when I was asking questions and what they chose not to disclose to the Senate,” he said.
“It’s a serious abrogation of their official responsibilities to parliament.”
Amber’s mother and stepfather, Fiona and Clint Benbow, have also said CASA has “blood on its hands” over the incident.
“It is soul destroying to know that CASA did nothing with the evidence it had received about Troy Thomas and others except to turn a blind eye,” said Mrs Benbow.
“We aren’t talking about ignoring hearsay or gossip. They had hard photographic and videographic evidence.
“If CASA is not going to act on information it receives about pilots and companies, why bother to have a regulator?”
In response, CASA has rejected the allegations as “completely false”, saying Thomas had “never held any regulatory approvals other than a private pilot licence”, and was not authorised to “make any safety decisions or fly on behalf of Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures or any other company”.
“CASA has zero tolerance for serious, wilful or repeated disregard of the aviation rules and takes all reports of illegal aviation behaviour seriously,” CASA said in a statement.
“Each of the 2018 incidents was investigated and acted on by CASA, and not one of them involved Mr Thomas. CASA does not normally investigate the owners of aircraft involved in accidents or incidents – as many are owned under complex financial and shareholding arrangements.
“CASA was aware of only one previous incident that Mr Thomas was involved in prior to his fatal accident. That incident resulted in enforcement action being taken against Mr Thomas.”
According to the ATSB’s report, the crash was caused by an overstress fracture in the tail rotor gearbox’s input cartridge that may have been picked up had more been done about reports of unusual vibrations in the rotor pedals.
The crash investigator also noted Thomas’ “high-risk appetite” and lack of a current aviation medical certificate or R44 helicopter flight review at the time of the accident.
“Additionally, during a review of the past usage of VH-NBY to identify any previous events that may have damaged the tail rotor, numerous instances of high risk operation by the accident pilot were identified (together with several reportable matters that had not been conveyed to the ATSB),” the ATSB wrote.
“These included the conduct of low flying and external load operations without the required training or qualifications and, more significantly, the carriage of passengers in an unsafe manner on multiple occasions.”