Fire-fighting Bell 204B Underwater Escape

Fire-fighting B204B Underwater Escape (Forest Air Helicopters VH-EQW, Queensland)

On 20 September 2023, Bell 204B VH‑EQW of Forest Air Helicopters crashed into a reservoir during fire-fighting operations for the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) at the Southern Downs fire, near Cunninghams Gap

Forest Air Helicopters Bell204B VH-EQW Just Prior to the Accident (Credit: Screenshot of Witness Video via ATSB)

The pilot escaped from underwater and sustained minor injuries.  The helicopter was destroyed.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released a preliminary report on 7 December 2023.

The Accident Flight

The aircraft was tasked with fire-fighting operations near Tarome, Queensland, using a 1,200 l bucket and a short line.  The single pilot (2,599 hours of total experience, 221 on type) was operating the helicopter from the left seat “for visibility” say ATSB.  During their first water uplift, the pilot…

…heard an unusual noise and that the helicopter ‘kicked’. Remaining in the hover, the pilot checked that all engine indications were normal and that the bucket and line were in the appropriate place.

However, the pilot reported that something still did not feel right. As a result, they elected to dump the water from the bucket and initiate a climb out.

Within about 10-15 seconds, as engine power was being applied, and the water was being released from the bucket, the pilot heard what they described as a ‘loud roaring’ sound and the helicopter pitched up, yawed, and subsequently had a reduction in power.

The helicopter rolled left and impacted the water at low [forward] speed. 

The Pilot’s Escape

Almost immediately after the impact, the helicopter inverted, started to fill with water, and sink rapidly.

The pilot had previously undertaken practical HUET (helicopter underwater escape training) but does not appear to have been equipped with a Compressed Air – Emergency Breathing System (CA-EBS) or similar survival aid.  However, he was able to take a breath before the cabin filled with water. 

The pilot removed their seatbelt and helmet, and attempted to open the front left door but could not open it with either the normal or emergency release handles.

When the helicopter was almost fully submerged, the pilot swam to the rear of the cabin and tried to open the rear right door but could not open it either, making further attempts to get out by kicking the helicopter windows.

Unlike a modern offshore helicopter, the cabin windows had not been modified into push out exits. 

The pilot then moved to the rear left door and, utilising considerable force, was able to successfully open it. The pilot noted in interview, that when they initially attempted to open the doors, they may have been trying to move the door handles in the incorrect (opposite) direction due to the helicopter being inverted.

The pilot escaped and swam a few metres to the surface and then to the side of the dam.

 The ATSB Safety Investigation

The helicopter was salvaged.  To date, the ATSB has interviewed the pilot and witnesses, and conducted preliminary examination of the helicopter wreckage.

The…rotor systems, flight controls, exits, and engine were visually examined. No pre‑accident damage was identified. The pilot’s left front door emergency jettison system was tested serviceable.

ATSB say they intend to examine the pilot’s training and records, maintenance documentation, and certain key components of the helicopter.

We will update this article as further information emerges.

Safety Resources

The European Safety Promotion Network Rotorcraft (ESPN-R) has a helicopter safety discussion group on LinkedIn.  You may also find these Aerossurance articles of interest:

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