It was another perfect sunny day in paradise as the Sea World helicopter lifted off from the theme park’s helipad at Southport on Queensland‘s Gold Coast.
There was a slight breeze blowing but nothing to concern anyone as British-born pilot Ash Jenkinson, 40, balanced the chopper’s sensitive controls to gently lift off just before 2pm on Monday.
On board with him were six passengers – British holidaymakers Ron Hughes, 65 and his wife Diane, 57, and Sydney mother Vanessa Tadros, 36, with her son Nicholas, 10, plus Winnie De Silva, 33, and her son Leon, 9, from Geelong, Victoria.
A few hundred metres away, a second Sea World helicopter with a pilot and five passengers on board flew above the rising aircraft, heading towards it at a 90 degree angle before they collided.
Why neither pilot saw the other or took evasive action will be the main focus of the air crash investigation now underway – with authorities confirming criminal charges have not been ruled out.
On Tuesday, Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll said it was ‘still early days’ in the investigation when asked by reporters if charges were likely.
The timeline to tragedy – 20 seconds that cost four lives
Commissioner Carroll asked the public to be ‘patient’ with the investigation that is being lead by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
‘They are quite comprehensive investigations. We will prepare a report for the Coroner and assist the ATSB.’
‘We have got a lot of work to do; ATSB have got a lot of work to do. These are meticulous investigations that need to be done exceptionally well.’
The collision occurred just 20 seconds after the lower aircraft took off, the two Eurocopter EC130s collided around 60 metres off the ground.
As the first chopper gained altitude, it smashed into the second helicopter, which appeared to be descending.
The churning rotors of the first helicopter ripped into the cabin of the second one, shattering its glass cockpit just centimetres from the pilot and passengers inside.
Eyewitnesses said they saw a terrifying cloud of broken glass and debris explode as the two aircraft ploughed into each other in mid-air.
The devastating force of the collision ripped the rotor unit and gearbox from the lower chopper, immediately sending it hopelessly tumbling out of control.
It spun upside down and plummeted to the ground below, smashing into a sandbar, killing the pilot, Mr and Mrs Hughes and Ms Tadros on impact.
Incredibly though, the pilot of the second aircraft managed to maintain control of his chopper despite the extensive damage to its front fuselage.
A Sea World visitor told 7 News they’d seen one of the aircraft ‘in a tailspin with the cockpit windows falling away after impact’.
Pictures from the scene reveal the second helicopter’s entire cockpit was smashed open by the other chopper’s rotor blades, with the glass fragments and high-speed rotor blades causing unknown injuries to those inside.
But the pilot somehow managed to keep the second chopper airborne long enough to quickly and safely crash land on the sandbar near the first helicopter.
The devastating force of the collision ripped the rotor unit and gearbox from the lower chopper, immediately sending it hopelessly tumbling out of control onto the sandbar below
Sea World helicopters chief pilot Ash ‘Jenko’ Jenkinson, 40, died in the helicopter crash (pictured with his wife, Kosha)
Sydney mother Vanessa Tadros, 36, was killed while her 10-year-old son Nicholas survived the helicopter crash on Monday
Air crash investigators admitted the death toll could have been even higher if not for the quick action of the pilot.
‘We could have had a far worse situation here and the fact that that one helicopter has managed to land has been quite remarkable,’ said Air Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell.
‘We are very fortunate that we’re not standing here with far more deaths.
‘The forces involved in coming down, not only in the actual collision which are substantial, but in the uncontrolled fall once it’s lost its main rotor, are considerable.
‘The second helicopter has landed on the sandbar and that has obviously led to the stage where we are not seeing more fatalities here.’
Footage of the first moments after the crash showed a flotilla of private boats rushing towards the crash site to help, including an amphibious bus.
British couple Ron, 65, and Diane Hughes, 57 died when a Sea World EC130 helicopter collided with another chopper mid-air and plummeted 30 metres near the Sea World theme park at 2pm on Monday
The pilot of the second aircraft managed to maintain control of his chopper despite the extensive damage to its front fuselage
Police and ambulance services arrived shortly afterwards with two air ambulance helicopters also touching down on the sandbar.
The first to the crash site were faced with ‘very, very confronting’ scenes, said acting Inspector Gary Worrell on Tuesday.
‘We had private vessels taking people across to the island to offer support to the victims,’ he said.
‘They did their very best with CPR until the emergency services got there.
‘Unfortunately though, we did have those four that were deceased but there were three being worked on significantly at the scene until they got transported by the air ambulance.’
Police and ambulance services arrived shortly afterwards with two air ambulance helicopters also touching down on the sandbar to airlift the injured to hospital
Rescuers worked to free those trapped in the wreckage while the injured were treated at the scene and attempts were made to save those fatally injured.
Ten minutes after the crash, word began to spread of the tragedy, prompting one of pilot Ash Jenkinson’s mates Ritchie Gregg to text him to say: ‘Hope that wasn’t you’.
Critically-injured survivor Winnie de Silva’s husband Neil, stepfather of her injured son Leon, has now launched a Gofundme for the pair in the wake of the crash.
‘Thankfully they are both alive,’ he wrote.
The husband of critically-injured survivor Winnie de Silva (pictured) and stepfather of her injured son Leon, has now launched a Gofundme for the pair in the wake of the crash.
‘But they have a lot of surgery ahead of them which means the family will need to stay here on the Gold Coast and I won’t be able to return to work.’
Crash detectives will now be poring over the wreckage for clues as well as video footage from eye witnesses and CCTV to identify the cause of the tragedy.
The rising tide swamped some of the wreckage on Tuesday until it was salvaged and removed from the area to be taken off for further forensic scrutiny.
‘We did get a lot of that perishable evidence off the site last night and the stuff that we really do rely on – a lot of that electronic recording equipment,’ said Mr Mitchell.
One of Jenkinson’s closest mates, Ritchie Gregg, sent a text message to Ash after learning about the tragedy on social media
Crash detectives will now be poring over the wreckage for clues as well as video footage from eye witnesses and CCTV to identify the cause of the tragedy
‘We now have a painstaking job of trying to recreate exactly what’s occurred in the lead up to this tragic start to the new year.
‘The process now for the ATSB is to gather all the intelligence and all the evidence we can we.
‘We’d certainly like to thank those witnesses who have come forward, those that have camera footage and CCTV from buildings.
‘That will be very important for us to try and put together what has occurred here, and particularly those final phases of flight.’
The rising tide swamped some of the wreckage on Tuesday until it was salvaged and removed from the area to be taken off for further forensic scrutiny
Investigators said they made managed to recover crucial electronic recording equipment before the tide swamped the crash scene
British-born pilot Ash Jenkinson, 40, balanced the chopper’s sensitive controls to gently lift off just before 2pm on Monday
A few hundred metres away, a second Sea World helicopter with a pilot and five passengers on board flew above the rising aircraft, heading towards it at a 90 degree angle
He added: ‘We know the takeoff and the landing phases of any aircraft operations are critical phases of flight, where the the cognitive workload of pilots are at their greatest.
‘What we need to know now is what was occurring inside those two cockpits at the time.’
Statements from those on board the helicopters who survived will be crucial to the investigation, but the ATSB chief admitted that may be delayed while they recover from the tragedy.
Mr Mitchell added: ‘We will be interviewing as many people as we need to from around here.
‘From witnesses to those on the helicopter that survived but we are also very mindful that today is obviously an extremely difficult day for a lot of people, particularly those that were involved in it.’
SEA WORLD HELICOPTERS’ 40 YEARS OF ‘IMPECCABLE SAFETY’
Sea World Helicopters is an independent offshoot of the theme park close to Gold Coast’s world famous Surfers Paradise, and has operated for 40 years.
In November 2019 it opened Australia’s largest privately-owned multi-million dollar helicopter terminal overlooking Broadwater.
It bragged of its ‘impeccable’ safety record which it attributed to its ‘experienced pilots and meticulous maintenance regime’.
Prior to Covid hitting the tourist industry, the terminal flew up to 600 passengers a day, offering five minute scenic flights or 30 minute trips to hinterland waterfalls and coastal beaches.
In the wake of the pandemic, the firm diversified with trips to local wineries
Chief pilot Ash Jenkinson, 40, who was killed in the tragedy, said the flights offered a once in a lifetime experience to holidaymakers.
‘Day trips flying around to several wineries, who doesn’t want to do that?’ he said in 2021.
‘The Gold Coast is so well known for its golden sands and beach lifestyle, you forget that only a five-minute flight inland you have all these beautiful Hinterland rainforests and massive flyable waterfalls.
‘It’s something our guests will remember for a lifetime and one of my favourite locations in Australia.’
He added: ‘If you haven’t seen the Gold Coast from the air, you’re missing out.
‘The simple flight up and down the coastline, flying past the tall buildings and above the sea, is something you can’t grasp from the ground.’