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CASA Board members’ dealings with NT crocodile egg industry probed after fatal Outback Wrangler chopper crash

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
9 Min Read
An investigation into how CASA’s Board engaged with crocodile egg-collecting operators before the fatal Outback Wrangler chopper crash has revealed exactly what went on in the years before Chris Wilson’s death.
An investigation into how CASA’s Board engaged with crocodile egg-collecting operators before the fatal Outback Wrangler chopper crash has revealed exactly what went on in the years before Chris Wilson’s death. Credit: CareFlight

An investigation into how the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s Board engages with industry and manages conflicts of interest — commissioned in the wake of the fatal Outback Wrangler chopper crash — has laid bare the crocodile egg collecting industry’s “lobbying activities” in the lead-up to Chris Wilson’s death.

The internal review, obtained by The Nightly under the Freedom of Information Act, cleared Board members of having any “actual or potential conflicts of interest” but found it would be open to a third party “on the available evidence to reasonably form the view” that there was a perceived conflict of interest between a former CASA Board member and his associates in the lucrative crocodile egg collecting industry.

This “perceived conflict” came to light after Wilson — who starred on reality television shows including Outback Wrangler and Wild Croc Territory — was killed when the helicopter he was slinging beneath crashed in a remote part of West Arnhem Land during a crocodile egg-collecting mission in February 2022.

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The destroyed Robinson R44 Raven II was owned and operated by Matt Wright’s company Helibrook and contracted to Mick Burns’ company Wildlife Harvesting NT.

Helibrook was operating under a CASA instrument — which allowed it to sling a person beneath their piston engine-powered choppers for the purpose of crocodile egg collecting — at the time it crashed.

This instrument was an exemption to new flight rules — Part 138 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations — that stipulated Human External Cargo operations, including crocodile egg collecting, could only be performed with the safer and more expensive turbine engine-powered helicopters.

About eight months before the fatal crash — in June 2021 — CASA Board member Michael Bridge facilitated a meeting in Darwin between the aviation safety regulator’s new Chief Executive Officer Pip Spence and Mr Burns so that the Top End’s ‘crocodile king’ could share his concerns about the impending new Part 138 regulations.

Mr Bridge also arranged for celebrity croc-wrangler Wright to take Ms Spence, who is also Director of Aviation Safety, and two Board members on an hour-long chopper flight around Darwin to show them the scale of Mr Burns’ croc farming operations.

The briefing and flight was arranged to coincide with a CASA Board meeting in Darwin.

At the time of the CASA Board’s visit, Mr Burns had an application for a Supplementary Type Certificate for a Human External Cargo hook to be fitted to a Robinson R44 — for the purpose of crocodile egg collecting with a sling person — under consideration.

Outback Wrangler Matt Wright and pilot Michael Burbidge were charged in relation to the investigation into the fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson in February 2022.
Outback Wrangler Matt Wright. Credit: Facebook

The application, made in 2015, was approved in July 2021.

Earlier that year, in March 2021, Mr Bridge had arranged meetings in Darwin between CASA’s then-acting CEO and DAS Graeme Crawford and members of the crocodile egg-collecting industry.

“Ideally I would like to get him in front of a couple of the larger helicopter operators up here so he can see the level of sophistication and quality that is going into their operations these days (the crocodile egg collection industry is now controlled by the Hermes empire which is worth greater than €80 billion ),” Mr Bridge wrote in an email to Mr Crawford’s executive assistant to pitch the meetings.

“If he could go and meet the Darwin CASA team as soon as he gets off the flight … we may be able to grab him and Craig for a few hours in the afternoon.

“We would take them out to one of the croc farms probably.”

It is understood Mr Bridge was referring to Craig Martin, who was the executive manager of CASA’s regulatory oversight division.

Later that day, Mr Bridge emailed Mr Crawford’s EA again confirming he would take CASA’s then-acting boss to visit both Mr Burns, who he sits alongside on the Tourism NT Board of Commissioners, and pilot Michael Burbidge — who also conducts crocodile egg collecting — on March 11.

“I can pick-up Graeme up from the CASA Office (@ 3.30pm) and we will head out to one of the Crocodile Farms and then to Remote Helicopter’s operation where he can meet both [Mr Burns] (Crocodile Farmer — partner of Hermes — the 80 billion Euro global operation) and (Mr Burbidge) (owner of Remote Helicopters),” Mr Bridge wrote.

“The main mission will be to show Graeme the sorts (and sophistication) of equipment and operations these organisations are running.

“(Mr Burns) will want to chat to Graeme about his “Hook STC” which has been a challenging process for everyone (CASA and he).”

In mid-2023, after details of CASA’s June 2021 Darwin visit to Mr Burns’ crocodile farm and flight with Wright on his Long Ranger were published, the Chair of CASA’s Board ordered a probe into CASA’s handling of the crocodile egg collecting approvals.

Last June, Air Chief Marshal (Retired) Mark Binskin asked Industry Complaints Commissioner Jonathan Hanton to review how CASA’s Board “engages with industry participants, including all related policies and arrangements”.

Mr Binskin wrote that “in light of recent media”, the scope of the review was to include actions in the lead up to – and activities during – the CASA Board meeting in Darwin in June 2021, how Board members transfer issues raised with them to the CASA Executive and CASA’s conflict of interest policy.

In August, Mr Hanton provided his final report to Mr Binskin.

Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson. Credit: Supplied

Mr Hanton’s report references dozens of emails and details numerous occasions on which Mr Bridge raised issues, on behalf of Mr Burns, with senior CASA managers and executives in writing.

“It is, therefore, open to conclude that the purpose of the meeting on 23 June 2021 was to allow the Crocodile Farmers Association of the NT (or its members) to communicate with CASA in an effort to influence decision-making on the making or amending of Part 138 of the CASR. This meets the definition of lobbying activities,” he wrote.

“The entity hosting CASA has been described as both CFANT and the NT light helicopter industry or operators.

“It appears from the available information that the purpose of the visit was to highlight issues with the implementation of Part 138 on the crocodile egg collection.”

Mr Bridge told the ICC that CFANT was not a CASA-regulated entity.

“Mr Bridge said the original intention was to get a number of NT light helicopter operators together to discuss the implications of Part 138, but it was later decided it would be more beneficial if the briefing was at an industry level rather than with the operators given the different ways each would be impacted,” Mr Hanton reported.

“Irrespective of whether CASA was hosted by CFANT or NT light helicopter operators, the purpose of the visit was to attempt to make representations to CASA about Part 138.”

Mr Hanton said there was no evidence of any actual or potential conflicts of interest on the part of Board members in the lead-up to, during or after the June 2021 Board meeting in Darwin.

“There is no guidance for Board members on how they should facilitate effective interaction between industry and CASA while at the same time avoiding perceived conflicts of interest,” he wrote.

“This is problematic in that … there is a very real risk that a third party could reasonably form the view that a Board member’s facilitation or encouragement has created an advantage or benefit for the industry or industry participant.

“The background to the CASA Board meeting in Darwin in June 2021 highlights this tension.”

The ICC found, based on how the relevant correspondence reads, it was open to reasonably form the view that Mr Bridge “has a close association with (Mr Burns)” which could have influenced the performance of his duties and responsibilities, constituting a perceived conflict of interest.

And that it was reasonable to form that view when considering certain incidents in conjunction or as a series of events.

“During Mr Bridge’s first week as a Board member, he raised issues with Mr Carmody as CEO/DAS CASA on behalf of (Mr Burns),” the report said.

“Mr Bridge made subsequent approaches to each DAS (or acting DAS in the case of Mr Crawford) in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

“Mr Bridge’s email exchange with Mr Carmody on behalf of crocodile egg collecting operators in February 2020 could be interpreted as implying an awareness that he should not be involved in escalating the operators’ concerns to CASA.”

Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson and his wife Danielle. Credit: Supplied

Mr Bridge told the ICC he had “not wanted to be in the middle” of communications between CASA and industry participants, and that he had expected issues – once raised at the appropriate level – to be handled by those parties.

“While Mr Bridge recognised that it was not appropriate for the Board to be involved in day-to-day operational matters or to have any say in any specific approvals … on 26 November 2019 he requested CASA look at granting operators the same approvals they had been issued the last two crocodile egg seasons,” Mr Hanton wrote.

“In his email to (Mr Burns) dated 26 May 2021, Mr Bridge appears to draw a connection between his remaining tenure on CASA’s Board expiring; the impending introduction of Part 138; and those involved in crocodile egg collection’s concerns with the requirements of Part 138.”

The probe found that Mr Bridge’s Standing Notice of Material Personal Interests, filled out when he was appointed to the CASA Board in 2018, was incomplete.

“Having spent 30+ years in the aviation industry I have a very wide network of friends and associates who deal with CASA regularly,” Mr Bridge wrote. But the next question – asking about the nature and extent of his interests – was left blank.

“On that basis, it can be said any connection Mr Bridge had with [Burns](and helicopter operators involved in crocodile egg collection) has been declared,” Mr Hanton wrote.

“The Standing Notice does not, however, meet the requirements … in that it does not include any details of the nature and extent of any interest and how the interest relates to CASA’s affairs.

“It is recommended that all current Board members’ Material Personal Interest declarations be reviewed to confirm they meaningfully set out the nature and extent of interest relevant to CASA’s affairs.”

Outback Wrangler Matt Wright and pilot Michael Burbidge were charged in relation to the investigation into the fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson in February 2022.
Outback Wrangler Matt Wright and pilot Michael Burbidge were charged in relation to the investigation into the fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson in February 2022. Credit: Unknown/Facebook

The ICC found there was no evidence to conclude that Mr Bridge had an actual or potential conflict of interest.

“It would be open to a third party on the available evidence to reasonably form the view that there was a perceived conflict of interest between Mr Bridge and members of the crocodile egg collection industry,” he wrote.

“Because any conflict was perceived (rather than actual or potential), there was no evidence of improper influence in the performance of his duties.

“There is no evidence to conclude that the issuing of approvals to operators involved in crocodile egg collection was influenced by Board members or members of CASA’s Executive Management.”

A statement on CASA’s website says that all of the ICC’s recommendations have since been implemented.

“The changes will help all current and future Board members understand their responsibilities and obligations while ensuring they can continue to engage with industry within clear and acceptable boundaries,” it said.

“The review acknowledged that CASA’s gifts and hospitality policy largely accorded with best practice and its conflict-of-interest policies largely mirrored the best practice guidelines of the Australian Public Service Commission.

“However, it recommended tightening the policy’s language to make it clearer that gifts should never be accepted from lobbyists.

“Other recommendations included a review of how CASA defines lobbyists and the development of guidance on the tension between the Board members’ obligation to avoid perceived conflict of interest with their responsibility to foster industry engagement.

“The changes reflect industry and government best practice for managing conflicts of interest and accepting gifts and hospitality, as well as arrangements for industry engagement.”

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