Six people died in the crash on New Year’s Eve. Picture: Richard Dobson.
Six people died in the crash on New Year’s Eve. Picture: Richard Dobson.

Seaplane pilot veered dramatically off course

THE pilot of the seaplane that crashed into the Hawkesbury River, killing all six people on board, had dramatically veered 1km off course into Jerusalem Bay hemmed in by steep terrain before losing control of the aircraft.

A preliminary report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has found pilot Gareth Morgan, 44, may have become disorientated, distracted or incapacitated when he lost control of the de Havilland Beaver at Cowan Creek taking a steep left turn off the standard flight path off the Hawkesbury River into Jerusalem Bay.

The plane veered 1km off course.
The plane veered 1km off course.

It is not yet known what caused the experienced pilot to veer off course at low altitude.

He had flown the route more than 500 times before with Sydney Seaplanes, for whom he had worked for four years - including three times on the day of the accident.

Aviation experts have ruled out engine and mechanical failure and state weather conditions were "ideal" and fuel had not been contaminated.

The report said: "The aircraft was observed to enter the bay at an altitude below the height of the surrounding terrain. Several witnesses also reported hearing the aircraft's engine and stated that the sound was constant and appeared normal.

"Shortly after entering Jerusalem Bay, numerous witnesses reported seeing the aircraft suddenly enter a steep right turn and the aircraft's nose suddenly dropped before the aircraft collided with the water in a near vertical position.


"The entire tail section and parts of both floats were initially above the waterline.

"All six occupants received fatal injuries."

The 55-year-old aircraft was scheduled to leave Cottage Point Inn about 3pm on New Year's Eve and due to return to Rose Bay past Shark Rock Point, Jerusalem Bay and Cowan Creek along the Hawkesbury River.

However aviation experts say it had steered sharp left into Jerusalem Bay, from which there is no exit, attempted a 90-degree bank angle turn in a bid to exit at low altitude when the pilot appeared to lose control of the aircraft.

Pilot Gareth Morgan.
Pilot Gareth Morgan.

The 1963 model nosedived into the water with no time for the pilot to radio for help killing him and British catering tycoon Richard Cousins, his fiancee Emma Bowden, her daughter Heather, 11, and Mr Cousins' sons William, 25, and Edward, 23.

Tycoon Richard Cousins.
Tycoon Richard Cousins.

The seaplane took 10 minutes to submerge 14 metres below water.

ATSB air crash investigators are urging witnesses to help to fill in the gap of exactly what happened between the plane landing for lunch at Cottage Inn and taking off again about 3.10pm, five minutes before it smashed into the water.

Crash teams are still examining the aircraft's fuselage, wings, cockpit and main body components and will release full findings about sequence of events, information about the pilot and the cause of the crash in 11 months.

Mr Morgan had medical examinations weeks before the crash with "a high standard of health" reported.

He held a valid Commercial Pilot (Aeroplane) Licence that was last reissued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) on 21 March 2017.

Sydney Seaplanes CEO Aaron Shaw described the crash as "tragic".

"Since the accident, we have done everything possible to assist the ATSB, the NSW Police and CASA to understand how this tragic event occurred," he said.

"Whilst the precise cause of the accident remains unknown, the preliminary report reflects the excellent flying conditions on the day and no evidence of airframe, fuel or engine issues.

"The key question arising from the report is why the plane crashed approximately half way down Jerusalem Bay, which is surrounded by steep terrain and has no exit?

"It is not a route we authorise in our Landing & Take Off Area Register and the plane simply should not have been where it was."

Emma and Heather Bowden were among those killed in the crash.
Emma and Heather Bowden were among those killed in the crash.

The ATSB investigated a fatal accident involving the same single-engine DHC-2 Beaver on 15 November 1996 but it was subsequently repaired and issued with a Certificate of Airworthiness and re-entered service, registered as VH-NOO, in 2000.

In the past five years since February 2016, there have been 23 pilot incapacitation occurrences in Australia reported per year on average.

Nearly 75 per cent of pilot incapacitations happened in high capacity air transport operations (about 1 in every 34,000 flights), with the main cause being gastrointestinal illness, followed by laser strikes.

Sydney Seaplanes reopened operations two weeks after the crash using turbine-powered Cessna C-208 Caravan planes with two pilots recruited to each flight.

Anyone with information is urged to contact the ATSB witness information line on 1800 020 616.