• The final track of VH-PHP before it collided with a river bank. (Google Earth annotated by the ATSB)
    The final track of VH-PHP before it collided with a river bank. (Google Earth annotated by the ATSB)

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said today that a coronary incident may have contributed to the fatal crash of a Bell 206 Jet Ranger near Maitland.

VH-PHP was being returned to Warnervale from Casino, NSW, in October 2022 when it deviated from the Williamtown VFR lane and collided with the banks of the Hunter River. The pilot, the only occupant, died in the crash.

Tracking records indicate that the pilot had followed the lane from Wirradgurie to Dungog, but on the leg transiting D589A, the aircraft turned northward back up the lane near Tocal. It then broke the vertical limit of the lane before conducting an orbit that took it outside the lane and across toward Vacy on a westerly track. The pilot then continued south outside the lane.

Witnesses reported seeing the helicopter descending gently toward the Hunter River, where it rolled rapidly and impacted the river bank.

According to the ATSB report, the pilot had shown signs of heart disease less than a year before the incident, but the autopsy revealed three major coronary arteries were 80% blocked in the pilot's heart. The investigation also found significant surgery and the use of prescription and non-prescription drugs that weren't reported to CASA.

“While it was not possible to forensically determine if the pilot experienced a heart attack, it remained a significant risk factor,” ATSB Director Transport Safety Kerri Hughes said.

“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.”

“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,” Hughes stressed.

The ATSB has not listed any contributing factors other than the potential for an incapacitating event.

The full investigation report is on the ATSB website.

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