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Pilot Michael Burbidge told court fatal chopper crash that killed Chris Wilson was the ‘worst day of my life’

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Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
11 Min Read
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson.
Chopper crash victim Chris 'Willow' Wilson. Credit: Supplied

Within days of the fatal Northern Territory chopper crash that killed Netflix star Chris Wilson, investigators knew something important was missing from the accident site.

Wilson’s mobile phone — a high-value piece of evidence — had allegedly vanished.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau wanted it. Presumably, the police did too. But before authorities even knew it was gone, the iPhone had plunged into the Arafura Sea.

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It would be more than two years before a court, the public and Wilson’s widow would learn exactly what had happened to it, when it was destroyed, who did it and the purported reason why.

The ill-fated crocodile egg-collecting mission, at a remote part of West Arnhem Land in February 2022, had been organised by Wild Harvest Northern Territory and involved helicopters from three companies.

Among them, is a Robinson R44 Raven II registered VH-IDW, owned and operated by Outback Wrangler Matt Wright’s company Helibrook.

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

On the morning of February 28, three crews set off from Helibrook’s Noonamah base, arriving at the King River about 8.50am, where they prepared their equipment.

Chris “Willow” Wilson was the egg collector in the first crew with pilot Sebastian Robinson, flying VH-IDW.

In the second crew was veteran pilot Michael Burbidge with egg collector Tim Luck.

Ty Richardson was flying a third chopper with Jock Purcell collecting eggs.

About 9am, two crews took off to collect eggs to the north-east while Wilson and Robinson planned to start at a nest nearby.

No one heard from them again.

At 10.24am Burbidge realised he had not had any radio contact with Robinson or Wilson, so took off in his chopper to search for them.

A statement of agreed facts, tendered in court this month, states that at 10.36am, Burbidge — director and chief pilot of Remote Helicopters Australia — located the wreckage of VH-IDW in a paperbark swamp just 300m from the clearing where they were last seen.

He found the critically injured pilot lying in the water next to the destroyed chopper with chest and spinal injuries.

Wilson’s body was found in between trees, about 44m from the wreckage.

“The defendant landed his aircraft and observed Wilson to be deceased and Robinson with serious injuries,” court documents state.

“The defendant was a close personal friend of both Wilson and Robinson.

“He provided first aid to Robinson before returning to his helicopter.”

Burbidge became airborne to obtain mobile phone reception and called multiple people including Sen. Const. Christopher Raeburn for help.

“Sen. Const. Raeburn notes in his statement that the defendant sounded notably stressed and potentially fearful when they spoke on the phone,” the agreed facts state.

“After alerting Raeburn and others, the defendant landed, approached and reached into the cockpit of IDW to turn off the master switch and alternator to make sure the aircraft was safe,” court documents state.

“He then provided further aid to Robinson using the pilot’s seat belt to tie his legs together and a mailbag to cushion his head and make a makeshift C-collar around his neck.

“Burbidge used the machine’s doors to prop Robinson’s body out of the water.”

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: CareFlight/CareFlight

Burbidge — who was “rational, organised and thoughtful” — filmed Robinson for the medics to record his level of consciousness and tried to get information from him about how the helicopter crashed.

He then placed a tarp over Wilson’s body to shield him from the elements and protect his workmates from distress when they arrived.

Later that morning, off-duty police officer Neil Mellon heard about the accident.

The senior cop, who has spent 17 years in the Territory Response Group and was qualified in search and rescue missions, called WHNT director Michael Burns and arranged to attend the crash site with him and celebrity croc-wrangler Wright.

CareFlight narrowly beat them to the scene, arriving at 12.32pm.

The medical crew extracted Robinson and flew him to Royal Darwin Hospital while nurse Matt Auld remained at the crash site with Wilson’s body until his colleagues returned that afternoon.

Burbidge told authorities that when Wright, Burns and Mellon arrived on the scene about 1pm, they were “hysterical” and he had to calm them down. Mellon decided to place Wilson in a body bag and Burbidge offered to help.

The veteran officer seized and secured the pistol on Wilson’s hip before unzipping the top pocket of his vest and removing his mobile phone.

“At this time, Mellon heard the defendant say words to the effect of ‘Dani does not need to see what’s on that phone’,” court documents state.

“Burns also confirmed Burbidge’s assertion that the phone contained information that the deceased’s wife would not like to know.”

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

Burbidge knew Wilson was always on his phone and may have been using the aviation application OzRunways, which tracked the aircraft’s movements.

He also knew Robinson used OzRunways on his phone and it was operating on an iPad in the chopper.

After CareFlight returned to retrieve Wilson’s body about 4pm, the men flew to Wilson’s property.

“On leaving the crash site Burbidge flew his helicopter back to the greater Darwin region to inform the deceased’s wife and family about the circumstances of the crash,” the agreed facts state.

“On the way back he disposed of the phone.

“He acknowledges that the phone might have been required as evidence in subsequent investigations but was motivated to protect the reputation of the deceased and protect the deceased’s widow.

“At the time the defendant destroyed the phone he was not aware that the data on the iPad and Robinson’s phone had been lost.”

A few days later, on March 2, Burbidge provided a statement to police about the crash but did not mention the missing phone.

In September of that year, he was pulled over, arrested and charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, attempt to pervert the course of justice, destruction of evidence and providing a false statement in a statutory declaration.

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

It took 15 months for the matter to reach a committal hearing.

In December, Burbidge — who attended Wilson’s wedding and was a pallbearer at his funeral — broke his silence by pleading guilty to destroying evidence, in relation to his best mate’s mobile phone.

However, his purported reasons — while known to those close to him — would not be made public for another agonising three months.

On March 8, Burbidge arrived at the Darwin Local Court, hand-in-hand with wife Jade, to learn his fate for an offence that “strikes at the heart of the justice system” and carries a maximum penalty of three years in jail.

The 46-year-old provided a letter to the court “apologising for any hurt I have caused the Wilson family as a result of my actions”.

“I have done the wrong thing and am deeply remorseful,” he wrote. He told Judge Tanya Fong Lim that despite their 13-year age gap, Wilson had been one of his best mates.

“The day of the helicopter accident … was the worst day of my life,” he wrote.

“The visions from that day are scorched on my brain forever and have caused me ongoing distress for the past two years.”

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

Ahead of sentencing, Burbidge told psychiatrist Olav Nielssen that he struggled to put the traumatic incident into words and felt he “can’t even discuss it with anyone”.

“I have seen dead bodies before but when you see someone you really care about dead it affects you ... it’s two years on and I still have trouble talking about it ... it was pretty confronting,” Burbidge told him.

“At the time I felt like walking off into the bush.”

He told Dr Nielssen he “did not know for sure” what personal information might have been on Wilson’s phone.

“In any case, he said that he did not want to provide specific information as to what he suspected the phone might contain, as so much information — that was supposed to be confidential — had already found its way into the public domain.

“If I had known the phone would be sought after I would have left it there ... it was nothing to do with trying to impede an investigation . . . it was for personal reasons,” Burbidge told him.

“I am a very loyal person ... loyal to a fault ... I don’t have a lot of friends but the ones I do have I would try and help out.

“I thought I was trying to help a mate ... in hindsight, I probably made it worse.”

Numerous character references — from employees, business associates, friends and his wife — were submitted in support of Burbidge.

A victim report from Wilson’s parents, Robert and Sharon, and his sister Laura, was also tendered to the court, in which they said ‘Burbs’ was like family to them.

“They value the type of man he is, the great mate he was to their son, and would like to express their support for him,” it states.

“They accept that Burbs has made a mistake that he is acknowledging through his plea.

“They entrust the court to do what is just and fair.”

Pilot Michael Burbidge arrives at court
In handing down her sentence, Judge Tanya Fong Lim said that Burbidge was not responsible for the crash or Wilson’s death.  Credit: Neve Brissenden/AAP

Burbidge’s defence lawyer Matthew Johnston told the court his client’s conduct was “an error of judgment that occurred on a very long, stressful and emotionally taxing day”.

“And that during the course of that day, he performed some very difficult, if not traumatic actions of having to deal with a crash, having to render first aid to Mr Robinson, of having to ensure that the body of Mr Wilson was protected before the search and rescue arrived,” he said.

“He was there for a number of hours on his own before ultimately this particular conduct occurred, at the end of the day, in circumstances where the body of Mr Wilson was being placed in a body bag.

“And it was at that time, with very little opportunity for reflection, that the conversation arose between the parties and the decision was made to destroy the phone and shortly after it was done.”

Mr Johnston insisted Burbidge was “a man of excellent character” who “made a mistake”.

But Crown prosecutor Steve Ledek argued Burbidge — “a taciturn man who keeps his own counsel” — would have been aware of the phone’s potential value to investigators trying to determine the cause of a crash “that no one has an explanation for”.

“The offender spoke to the deceased’s family knowing that he had destroyed something that more than likely contained evidence relevant to how he died,” Mr Ledek said.

“That phone may have captured the following: How the pilot was behaving before they took off from Mount Borradaile, what the pilot was doing the night before or in the day before, any conversation between the deceased and others about how the helicopter was flying, how much fuel had been taken on at Mount Borradaile and who was operating the pump, the height and speed of the helicopter, the sound of the engine, the moment when the helicopter was no longer able to fly.

“This non-exhaustive list illustrates the critical value the phone may have had to investigators and anyone who wanted closure about what actually happened.”

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

Everyone who knew Wilson knew he was always on his phone.

“In these circumstances, it’s a unique circumstance, because that phone represented so much more than simply evidence. It represented a person’s life,” Mr Ledek said.

“All the things that they had stored in that phone, that were personal to them and personal to their family, in addition to OzRunways data or flight recording information or any images that might have been captured during the course of that particularly ill-fated harvest.”

Mr Ledek also said there was no evidence to prove anything on Wilson’s phone would have caused Wilson reputational damage or anguished his widow.

“We don’t have it, to be able to prove or disprove that notion,” he said.

“As the phone will never be recovered, the release of that information without foundation is arguably just as damaging as the destruction of the evidence itself.

“Inadvertently, as a by-product, that motivation that has been declared and put forward has now opened the door to a whole stream of conjecture that has now had the actual opposite effect of any purported desire to protect that family.”

In handing down her sentence, Judge Fong Lim said that Burbidge was not responsible for the crash or Wilson’s death.

Mr Burbidge claims he destroyed the phone out of loyalty to his dead friend, in an attempt to protect his reputation and protect his widow from whatever was on that phone, she said.

“There’s nothing in the agreed facts, which confirms what was contained on that phone from which Ms Wilson needed protection from.

“As the phone was destroyed, there’s no way of confirming if there was in fact anything on that phone from which Ms Wilson needed to be protected.”

Judge Fong Lim said any data or recordings on Wilson’s phone might have been used to either corroborate or discount evidence from witnesses.

“In my view, it might have been a very important piece of evidence in any prosecution relating to the crash,” she said.

The judge said she accepted the crash was a “highly stressful and distressing situation”.

“However, Mr Burbidge had, at the time, a presence of mind to apply substantial first aid to the pilot and to ensure that the scene was safe for others,” she said.

“He also had the presence of mind to destroy the phone out of misguided loyalty, in my view.”

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

Judge Fong Lim said Burbidge should be given credit for his guilty plea, although it was the result of “significant negotiations”.

“I do accept that Mr Burbidge is truly sorry for his offending in hindsight … and I believe his experience in this whole process has shown to him specifically, how serious his offending is seen by the community, and that he has suffered both personally and financially,” she said.

“Given all of the above, and given all of the support that you have had ... the most appropriate sentence here is that a conviction will be entered against your name, and you’ll be fined, a significant fine, of $15,000.”

Mellon, Burbidge’s co-accused, has also pleaded guilty to destroying evidence and will return to court next month, while Wright’s most serious charge — attempting to pervert the course of justice — has been committed to the Supreme Court.

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