After watching two men die when their helicopter crashed and burned at Jaspers Brush last year, Andrew Campbell was sickened by news that a similar crash had claimed four lives at Bulli Tops last week.
The chief flying instructor at Jaspers Brush Airfield said the crash which killed film producer Andrew Wight and filmmaker Mike deGruy in February 2012 was ‘‘scarily similar’’ to last Thursday’s fatal accident.
‘‘Both crashes involved Robinson R44 helicopters with aluminium fuel tanks – and the same type of helicopter was involved in a fatal crash at Cessnock in 2011,’’ Mr Campbell said. ‘‘The real issue is the fact that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority knows about the problem with this particular helicopter and fuel tank – when they crash, they catch fire. So why are they not being taken out of the air until they are fixed? We had one fly into the airfield [on Saturday] with the same tank.’’
Mr Campbell tried his best to save the film crew members from the inferno on February 4 last year. This month he received a bravery award from the Royal Humane Society for his efforts.
‘‘They were filming down at Jervis Bay for film director James Cameron and using our airfield as a staging area,’’ Mr Campbell, the Cambewarra resident, said.
‘‘When they got the call to action, they jumped in the helicopter. But soon after they lifted off the ground the helicopter fell back, and rolled over onto the ground really softly, without any heavy impact.
‘‘Before its rotors even stopped moving the mast had caught fire. Myself and the other instructors got fire extinguishers but the fire engulfed the helicopter within seconds.
‘‘We were very close – close enough to see the pilot trying to get out and gasping for breath ...because the explosion had sucked all the oxygen out of the air. I even found it very difficult to breathe and got superficial burns and all the hair burnt off my arms.’’
Mr Campbell said footage captured by a bystander was instrumental in the Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation.
An ATSB spokesman yesterday confirmed the findings from the Jaspers Brush investigation were due to be announced by the end of April.
Mr Campbell said he would like to offer the witnesses of the Bulli Tops crash any support he could.
‘‘From the accounts I’ve read of the Bulli Tops crash, the helicopter fell from treetop height which generally isn’t a fatal accident – it should have been completely survivable.
‘‘In this and the [Jaspers Brush] crashes witnesses saw people in the helicopter alive after the crash, only to be too quickly consumed by the post-accident fire.’’
A CASA spokesperson said after the Bulli Tops crash that it would be ‘‘extreme’’ to ground all Robinson R44 helicopters.
Bankstown Helicopters, the company that operated choppers in both crashes, declined to comment on whether it would ground its fleet.
ATSB duty officer Joe Hattley said through its Safety Watch initiative the bureau had highlighted how all-aluminium fuel tanks had proven susceptible to post-accident fuel leaks, increasing the risk of a potentially fatal post-impact fire.
Manufacturer Robinson Helicopter Company required R44 helicopters with all-aluminum fuel tanks to be retrofitted with bladder-type tanks no later than April 30 this year. To date, more than 1700 retrofit kits have been shipped for fitting.