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NT helicopter crash pilot was unqualified for night flying, says ATSB

written by Staff reporter | March 21, 2024

VH-DLD crashed near Gorrie Station south of Katherine on 7 December 2023. (Image: ATSB)

A pilot who fatally crashed a Robinson R22 in the NT last year had taken off after last light despite being unqualified and ill-equipped for night flying, the ATSB has found.

The helicopter, VH-DLD, crashed near Gorrie Station south of Katherine on 7 December 2023, having left nearby Bloodwood Station at around 7:30pm. The ATSB believes the pilot lost visuals after flying into bushfire smoke. Search parties found the wreckage two days later, with the pilot fatally injured.

The ATSB investigation report details that despite being offered a place to stay overnight at Bloodwood Station, the pilot had taken off after last light to return to their property. The pilot did not hold a night visual flight rules rating but had reportedly completed some night flying training and had arrived home after last light on previous occasions.

“Pilots qualified to only operate under day visual flight rules are at risk of spatial disorientation and loss of control of their aircraft when they operate – intentionally or otherwise – in night conditions, where little to no useable external visual cues can be present,” said ATSB director of transport safety Stuart Macleod.

“The visual flight rules require pilots to only operate under daylight conditions, and to plan to land 10 minutes before last light, which provides a reliable method for ensuring there are sufficient external visual references available to safely operate.”


The ATSB report notes the accident helicopter was not equipped for night flight. Notably, it did not have an artificial horizon.

“Without the minimum instruments and training, it was unlikely that the pilot would have been able to orientate the helicopter without external visual references,” Macleod said.

“It is likely that during the return home flight, the helicopter entered a smoke plume associated with bushfires under dark night conditions, and the pilot became spatially disorientated, resulting in a collision with terrain, uncontrolled, at a high speed.”

The ATSB’s avoidable accidents publication on visual flight at night accidents and CASA’s advisory circular for the Night VFR rating (AC 61-05 v1.1) provide further discussion of the risks associated with night VFR flight and the requirements for operating VFR at night.

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