Outback Wrangler chopper death caused by lack of fuel
Netflix personality and crocodile catcher Matt Wright says he is “double devastated” to find out fuel exhaustion and traces of cocaine have been linked to the death of his Outback Wrangler co-star.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau released its report on Wednesday, almost 21 months after Chris Wilson plunged to his death in a remote area of the Northern Territory.
The 34-year-old died while on a crocodile egg-hunting mission in West Arnhem Land when a Robinson R44 helicopter he was attached to by a 30-metre line using a harness crashed.
The ATSB investigation found the chopper’s engine stopped mid-flight and during the emergency landing, pilot Sebastian Robinson released the hooks and sling line.
Robinson survived the crash but was critically injured.
The height of the release, which probably was above nine metres, was “likely not survivable” for Wilson, ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell found.
“Based on analysis of fuel samples and other evidence, the ATSB investigation found that the helicopter was likely not refuelled at a fuel depot about three-quarters of the way between Darwin and the crocodile egg-hunting area,” Mitchell said.
Wright is facing a slew of charges himself – largely to do with tampering with evidence – and took to social media to express his surprise at Wednesday’s findings.
“I was devastated at the time when he was killed and I’m double devastated to find out that the helicopter run out of fuel while he was in the sling,” Wright said in a tearful video.
The bureau also found the pilot’s exposure to cocaine in the previous days increased the likelihood of fatigue and inattention. There was insufficient evidence to determine if he was affected at the time.
Wright, who owned the business, said he never would have let Mr Robinson fly the chopper if he knew about the drug use.
“My stance on drugs has been pretty strong – not doing them, not having any of my guys doing them,” he said.
“To find this out has blown me away and if I had known he wouldn’t have been flying.”
Investigators could not draw any substantial links between Robinson’s cocaine use and his levels of fatigue and inattention at the time.
Mitchell said while there were differing accounts of whether the chopper had refuelled, the investigation ultimately found it hadn’t.
The chopper was owned and operated by Wright’s company Helibrook, which the bureau found had made several errors.
The report said the operator was not using a proper safety management system to “systematically identify and manage operational hazards”.
The investigation also found the Civil Aviation Safety Authority had banned the use of slings at any height but had granted Helibrook an exemption to conduct crocodile egg collecting.
By 2017, all safety conditions limiting height, speed and exposure were removed by CASA, meaning Wilson could be attached to the helicopter up to 30 metres.
Mitchell said the regulator had been given a copy of the report a week before it was released, and has since changed its protocols.
The commissioner stressed the bureau conducted no blame investigations and its findings “do not and should not be read as attributing blame to individuals or operators or the regulator”.
Months after the accident, the ATSB referred the case to the Australian Federal Police, recommending police probe the issue in regards to evidence available.
Wright, 44 and his pilot Michael Burbidge were allegedly first on scene, accompanied by former senior police officer Neil Mellon.
The trio were all later charged with perverting the course of justice and destroying evidence.
All three men continue to face court, with Wright saying he “strenuously denies any allegations of wrongdoing”.
Outback Wrangler was an adventure TV series filmed in remote Top End locations that aired in more than 90 countries.
The show chronicled the capture and transport of dangerous animals that posed a threat to people, including crocodiles and wild buffalo.