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Heart attack may have brought down helicopter near Maitland: ATSB

written by Staff reporter | July 10, 2024

The crash site of VH-PHP in October 2022. (Image: NSW Police, annotated by ATSB)

A helicopter pilot who crashed near Maitland, NSW, two years ago may have suffered a heart attack.

In its final report into the October 2022 crash of the Bell 206B JetRanger registered VH-PHP, the ATSB found it was likely the pilot, who was en route from Casino in the state’s north to Warnervale on the Central Coast, “experienced an incapacitating event”.

“While it was not possible to forensically determine if the pilot experienced a heart attack, it remained a significant risk factor,” said ATSB director of transport safety Kerri Hughes.

“This accident reinforces to pilots the importance of remaining aware of any health and lifestyle changes, and how these may affect your fitness to fly.”

While transiting the Williamtown military restricted area via the inland visual flight rules lane, the helicopter turned around and deviated outside the lane, and the pilot did not respond to radio calls from air traffic control.

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The helicopter then flew south, exiting the restricted area about 500 ft above ground level.

Witnesses then observed the helicopter heading towards the Hunter River, descend slightly and possibly began to turn, before rolling markedly and descending rapidly. The helicopter collided with the riverbank and was destroyed, and the pilot was fatally injured.

A cardiology review undertaken less than 12 months before the accident found only minor coronary artery disease in the pilot. However, the pilot’s post-mortem showed they had severe coronary atherosclerosis within all 3 major coronary arteries, with at least 80 per cent blockage observed within each artery.

While not determined to have contributed to the accident, the ATSB also found the pilot had not declared a significant surgery during their most recent aviation medical examination, nor the use of numerous prescribed, and non-prescribed drugs.

“Pilots are responsible for declaring their full medical history and medication use at the time of an aviation medical examination, so CASA and your designated aviation medical examiner can assess suitability for flying,” said Hughes.

“Don’t fly if feeling unwell and manage chronic conditions in association with your DAME. They are best placed to balance your personal medical risks against those of aviation safety.”

The report also notes at least one of the undeclared non-permitted medications being used by the pilot had an alternative, which would have allowed the pilot to continue flying.

“Alternative medication may be available to medications that are incompatible with flying,” said Hughes.

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