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No CASA probe into near-death chopper crash involving Troy Thomas before Broome double-fatality

KRISTIN SHORTEN
The Nightly
High Calibre suffered significant damage in the crash.
High Calibre suffered significant damage in the crash. Credit: Western Australia Police Force a/supplied

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority has not investigated a near-fatal chopper crash involving a high-profile tourism operator, despite knowing for years the aircraft had been destroyed and everyone onboard was injured.

The Nightly last Wednesday revealed shocking new details about the accident, in which pilot Troy Thomas — a multiple Australian Tourism Awards winner and Hall of Fame recipient — crashed his Robinson R44 off the top of his catamaran near one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

It was also revealed how after the crash, which occurred off the WA coast, Mr Thomas asked an injured passenger Chelsea Cortese to swim around in crocodile-infested waters collecting debris so he could cover up the serious incident.

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By law, the accident — which occurred in July 2019 — was “immediately reportable” but the Australian Transport Safety Bureau was not notified.

Troy Thomas.
Troy Thomas. Credit: Supplied/SBS

The helicopter, owned and operated by Mr Thomas’s company Avanova Pty Ltd, was quickly claimed on insurance.

Less than a year later in July 2020, Mr Thomas and schoolgirl Amber Millar were killed when another Robinson R44 in Avanova’s fleet crashed immediately after take-off from an industrial site in the iconic holiday spot of Broome.

Within days of the double-fatality, the ATSB became aware of the earlier crash.

The Nightly has since obtained emails through Freedom of Information which reveal that, within two weeks, ATSB investigators had contacted CASA, asking for its VH-ZGY records.

“(The investigator) advised that this aircraft has also had an incident … in which it took off from a boat and went for a swim in Talbot Bay,” a CASA delegate emailed a colleague on July 20 in 2020.

Then in February 2021, a Broome doctor who was treating Ms Cortese sent CASA a detailed written account of the crash and its aftermath.

That same month, the ATSB asked CASA why VH-ZGY was still on its aircraft register when it had apparently sunk in July 2019.

“There is some concern about the airworthiness of the subject aircraft,” the manager of surveillance services at CASA’s regulatory oversight division wrote to a colleague.

“I guess we should make enquiries about the helicopter’s whereabouts and airworthiness if we are able to, given that it’s a private operator.”

VH-ZGY on High Calibre - Troy Thomas’s Robinson R44 Clipper II – registered VH-ZGY – on top of his boat High Calibre.
VH-ZGY on High Calibre - Troy Thomas’s Robinson R44 Clipper II – registered VH-ZGY – on top of his boat High Calibre. Credit: Western Australia Police Force a/supplied

On February 18, 2021, CASA’s surveillance manager confirmed to colleagues in Canberra that Mr Thomas’s insurer had sent loss adjusters to the accident site when an insurance claim was lodged.

He said this proved VH-ZGY was “sitting at the bottom of Talbot Bay”.

After the ATSB released its final report into the fatal Broome crash last year, Amber’s parents – Fiona and Clint Benbow – began questioning CASA’s chief executive and director of aviation safety Pip Spence about its exposure to other incidents Mr Thomas had been involved in.

In late July 2023, ahead of a meeting with the Benbows, senior CASA staff asked its delegates what CASA knew about the VH-ZGY crash.

On August 2 last year, the regulatory oversight division manager told bosses “we only got to look at this in 2021”.

“I’ve done some digging and can offer the following,” he wrote.

“The accident happened 13 July 2019. The information was passed to CASA, but it went to Av Med. At some point it was given to Avg Corro for following up. This was done but by that time (Thomas) was deceased and it was confirmed it was the helicopter in question VH-ZGY was at the bottom of the ocean.

“No further action was taken as aircraft was destroyed and (Thomas) deceased.

“Unfortunately, I can offer no comfort to the poor parents.”

Troy Thomas flying with Ernie Dingo.
Troy Thomas flying with Ernie Dingo. Credit: Supplied/SBS

CASA records show that despite sinking, VH-ZGY was not deregistered until May 2023 after the ATSB revealed the aircraft had been destroyed four years earlier.

CASA this week declined to comment on the 2019 crash but confirmed in January that it did not investigate.

“The documents released under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) outline the actions taken by CASA, which included confirming that the aircraft was not being flown and noted that the pilot was deceased,” a spokesperson said.

“In light of ongoing legal proceedings, we are unable to provide further comment on this matter.”

Following Mr Thomas’s death, Ms Cortese launched civil proceedings against Avanova and the matter is expected to proceed to trial later this year.

Her statement of claim, filed in the Perth District Court, claims VH-ZGY was still tied down to the boat when Mr Thomas tried to take-off and that Avanova breached its duty of care.

Ms Cortese’s lawyer David Williams, from DWL Legal, last week said he could not comment on the case while it was before the court other than to say that he “hopes justice ultimately prevails”.

He also confirmed the respondent, Avanova Pty Ltd, was “vigorously defending the claim”.

Sophie Thomas, who was appointed director of Avanova in July 2020, has not responded to questions.

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