On 8 October, Queensland Government Air personnel attended to an incident on Mount Cook, as senior pilot Mark Hempton reports
At midday a call came in on the emergency line via the Qld Clinical Coordinator for a task to Mount Cook, just east of Cooktown in far north Queensland. The task was for a helicopter crash on the mountain in an area that had no other access other than via foot. There were reports of six people injured and the Cairns-based rescue helicopter, Rescue 510, was offline for maintenance all day with no way of bringing it back online any earlier.
Townsville Base Rescue 521 was the only asset available with winch capability and a full medical crew. It is a 330-mile (531-km) leg from Townsville to Mt Cook and no time was wasted getting under way. The crew consisted of me (senior pilot), John Bailey (aircrew officer and winch operator), Owen Yabsley (rescue crew officer), a Queensland Ambulance Service paramedic and a Queensland Health-contracted doctor.
As we travelled north, AusSAR called and informed us that the helicopter was a Bell 206 Jetranger with up to four people injured as they attempted to board the helicopter while it hovered with one skid on the sloping rock near the summit of Mt Cook. As one of the passengers was boarding, the aircraft rolled over, pinning him under the machine. Others were injured as the aircraft rolled over.
En route a lot of planning was underway on how to tackle the winching, what we might expect with the prevailing winds off the ocean, how we would prioritise the injured and the use of other assets to assist. An RFDS plane was also re-routed to Cooktown to transport some of the injured if required. The AusSAR plane was also on the way to provide top cover and forward information back to the search and rescue centre in Canberra on the rescue progress.
On the way, we stopped at the Cairns base to top up the fuel tanks so we could commence winching immediately on arrival at Mt Cook, with a plan to ferry the injured to Cooktown Hospital, about a three-minute flight away from the top of Mt Cook, if we needed to stabilise the more serious injuries of the survivors. When we arrived on scene, the crashed helicopter was lying on its side on the exposed rock and was in a precarious position. The rotor blades were destroyed and the tail rotor blades were spinning in the wind, which was a strange sight. There was a real danger of blowing the downed machine off the rock face, which was sloping, with our down wash in the hover if we tried to winch in that area.
Thankfully, all the survivors had moved to the radio tower station nearby and we could winch to a small space in the trees near that area. A series of nine winches took place. It was a challenging operation with the wind running up the side of the mountain with lee side turbulence and continual buffeting whilst in the hover. In the end, we only needed to take the most seriously injured person out via stretcher winch with a tagline attached to stop any stretcher spin. Tagline angle was tight with close proximity to trees and the stretcher had to be lifted up on a rock to commence the operation.
After refuelling at Cooktown and stabilising the patient we headed towards Cairns via the 15 ILS and another refuel with 30-knot headwinds for the trip back to Townsville Hospital. All in all, we completed 6.3 hours of flying with nine winches and finally returned to base at 20:30 hrs that night.
In the end, it was a great job done by all involved, and we were very thankful that no one was killed in the helicopter rollover accident and our patient was in a stable condition with some head injuries.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating what went wrong.