Bulli Tops chopper tragedy, one year on

The scene of the helicopter disaster at Panorama House.

The scene of the helicopter disaster at Panorama House.

On March 21 last year, retired CSIRO fellow Dr Don Price, retired head industrial physicist Gerald Haddad, former senior research scientist Dr John Dunlop and former deputy chief of operations Dr Tony Farmer flew out of Bankstown Airport on a helicopter joy flight.

The group was headed for lunch at the scenic Panorama House, planning to navigate to a grassy patch next to the Bulli Tops restaurant.

They were attempting to land just after midday when the chopper’s main rotor clipped a tree, forcing it onto its side.

Onlookers, who had watched the happy group fly in just seconds before, rushed to help the men from the wreckage but were unable to reach them before a fire broke out in the chopper’s rotor mast and cabin, engulfing it in flames.

Corrimal contractor John Pusell, who was setting up a marquee in the eatery’s grounds, watched helplessly as the chopper and its passengers disappeared into the fiery blaze.

''I was yelling ‘it’s going to blow up, man, we have to get them out’ '' - John Pusell

‘‘It all happened in about three seconds, we jumped the fence and I was yelling ‘it’s going to blow up, man, we have to get them out’,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s the most putrid way to die and [the man I saw] was in pain, he was alive.’’

Mr Pusell remembered seeing the men’s smiling faces just before the chopper came down.

‘‘...I said ‘oh no, it’s hit the tree boys’,’’ he said.

‘‘It smashed the blades, went back up again about another foot and then just dropped to the ground – it didn’t really crash, it just hit the ground and the rotors were still going.

From left, Dr Tony Farmer, Dr Don Price and Dr John Dunlop.

From left, Dr Tony Farmer, Dr Don Price and Dr John Dunlop.

‘‘It toppled over, landed, it all happened in about three seconds ...I turned around [and] said ‘get some fire extinguishers, get water’.

‘‘The other guys were trying to pull the helicopter back down but it was too heavy.’’

Panorama restaurant owner Nick Di Maggio also rushed to help.

‘‘We didn’t think anything, we just tried to put the fire out,’’ he said at the time.

‘‘We didn’t think that it could blow up or come out and hit us, we were pretty lucky.

‘‘When we knew we didn’t have any extinguishers left, all we could do was just watch it disintegrate.’’

Last year’s horrific accident, and its tragic loss of life, set in motion a much-needed safety change to the controversial Robinson R44 chopper.

The Jaspers Brush tragedy about to happen in February 2012.

The Jaspers Brush tragedy about to happen in February 2012.

The incident was the latest in a string of accidents where the choppers had crashed and then burst into flames – and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) knew it had to act.

‘‘After all these accidents, we [knew we had to] speed up the fitting of the flexible fuel tank,’’ a CASA spokesperson said last week.

An investigation of a starkly similar incident at Jaspers Brush in 2012 found the two victims may have survived if the chopper’s all-aluminum fuel tank, which was known to increase the likelihood of post-crash fire, had been replaced with a different model.

So, just one month after the Bulli Tops tragedy, CASA delivered an ultimatum to Australian R44 operators: replace the chopper’s deadly fuel tanks  or face being grounded.

Fast forward 12 months and all 484 R44s operating in Australia have made the switch, replacing the aluminum tanks with a safer bladder-type device.

Since the mandate, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has not received a single report of a comparable post-impact fire from R44 accidents.

The bureau did investigate an incident in Victoria in November last year where an R44 helicopter became unstable during a flight from Latrobe Valley to Mount Buller, rolled onto its side and crashed.

Although the helicopter sustained substantial damage, its fuel tank did not rupture and there was no post-impact fire.

The chopper had been retrofitted with the bladder-type fuel tank.

An ATSB preliminary investigation report into the Bulli Tops crash, released in April last year, revealed the helicopter had not been fitted with the new tank, despite the manufacturer long recommending the switch.

Robinson Helicopter Company issued a service bulletin to R44 operators in December 2010, instructing them to swap to flexible fuel tanks.

CASA also wrote to the operators, urging them to implement the change before April 30, 2013.

While CASA initially said grounding the entire R44 fleet after the Bulli Tops crash would be ‘‘extreme’’, the authority later issued an airworthiness directive, mandating the fuel tank upgrade.

For those who lost loved ones in previous R44 crashes, the compulsory change came too late.

Just 12 months before the Bulli Tops tragedy, two men were killed in an R44 crash at Jaspers Brush.

Australian film producer Andrew Wight and American filmmaker Mike deGruy were heading to Jervis Bay on February 4, 2012, to shoot footage when Wight’s door opened shortly after lift-off.

As he reached to close it, the helicopter moved into an abrupt nose-up pitch, forcing the chopper to hit the ground where it burst into flames.

An ATSB report, released in May last year, found the fire, not the crash, had killed the pair.