Written by Peter CarterUpdated on July 20, 2020
An experienced pilot whose helicopter crashed after being caught in cloud in the PNG highlands – contrary to the air rules under which the flight was being conducted – has sued his employer for his catastrophic injuries.
Bruce Towers was signed on by air support company Hevilift Ltd in early 2006 after a 28 day flight and skill test.
His final airlift on 20 April was to bring pipeline workers back to the landing site at base camp 7 minutes through a number of valleys to his west and at an altitude 2000 feet above his point of departure.
En route, he received a radio report of fog at the destination.
He pressed on with the flight, radioing back that he would “take a look”. But at about 150 m from touchdown, the aircraft was suddenly enveloped in a rapidly forming swirl cloud.
The crash killed 3 of 6 passengers aboard after it struck terrain in an attempt to descend out of the danger. Towers was rendered an incomplete paraplegic.
The pilot – who was qualified only to fly in visual meteorological conditions clear of cloud and in sight of ground – resisted his employer’s attempts to have his case moved out of Queensland’s Supreme Court to New Guinea.
Justice Jim Henry sitting in Cairns was nevertheless required to apply New Guinea law to determine whether or not the company’s conduct had negligently caused or contributed to the crash.
Towers’ contention was that his Bell 206 Long Ranger ought to have been equipped with an artificial horizon and other instrumentation that – despite him being unqualified for their use – would have given him a chance of safely exiting the dangerous situation.
He also claimed Hevilift ought to have given him a specific warning of the risk of rapidly forming cloud associated with the ascension of supersaturated warm air in the vicinity of ridges and forest canopies.
That phenomenon – where clouds can form “in tens of seconds”, ie at rates far in excess of that ordinarily encountered – was the subject of expert meteorological evidence from scientist Russel Morison.
Hevilift – which operates in PNG, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar – argued that the development of the cloud was not “instantaneous” as Towers had alleged and that once the pilot had been forewarned of fog, he was responsible for all the consequences of pressing on into potential danger.
Justice Henry rejected that defence. The rapid cloud formation phenomena presented a foreseeable risk of inadvertent entry into non-visual conditions by pilots who were not qualified for those conditions.
“Heavilift, acting with reasonable care for its pilots and passengers should have warned of it and was in breach of its duty of care in not so warning,” he ruled.
The court also accepted that the company ought to have have equipped the chopper with the relevant instrumentation “to at least give pilots a chance of escaping the otherwise likely fatal consequences of inadvertent entry” into cloud.
In this crash however, the availability of such instruments would not have prevented it occurring because, in the view of the court, Towers’ prior training had demonstrated deficiencies in piloting his aircraft by that means.
The court also exonerated Towers from any contributory negligence or breach of contract in respect of his own flying standards.
Damages will be assessed by the court at a future date.