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Broome helicopter crash: Parents of Amber Millar still facing ‘our worst living nightmare’ four years on

Headshot of Kristin Shorten
Kristin Shorten
The Nightly
Amber Jess Millar, 12, was killed in July 2020 after the helicopter she was in crashed Broome.
Amber Jess Millar, 12, was killed in July 2020 after the helicopter she was in crashed Broome. Credit: Supplied by family/Supplied

The parents of schoolgirl Amber Millar, who was killed in a horrific helicopter crash with a high-profile pilot, have returned to one of Australia’s most iconic tourist destinations for the first time since their 12-year-old’s preventable death.

Fiona and Clint Benbow have returned to Broome, in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, ahead of the four-year anniversary of the chopper crash that killed their daughter in an attempt to “face our worst living nightmare”.

Amber was killed alongside tourism stalwart Troy Thomas on July 4, 2020 when his Robinson R44 Raven I – registered VH-NBY – crashed immediately after he performed a high-powered vertical take-off from an industrial area north of Broome.

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Amber’s traumatised parents have been fighting for answers and justice ever since.

In recent days the couple visited Cable Beach and sat in the exact spot on the sand where Ms Benbow and her daughter had shared their last sunset on July 3, 2020.

“Our first sunset in Broome since the loss of Ambz was stunning and terrifying all at once,” Ms Benbow told The Nightly.

“We just held each other and bawled.

“If only the correct procedures had been followed, Ambz would have been here, enjoying this sunset with us.”

Fiona and Clint Benbow remembering their daughter, chopper crash victim Amber.
Fiona and Clint Benbow remembering their daughter, chopper crash victim Amber. Credit: The Nightly

Thomas – a high-profile tourism ambassador – was the founder and director of Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures in Broome and Swan River Seaplanes in Perth.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s nearly three-year investigation uncovered a litany of failures and coverups preceding the fatal crash, which left two other passengers critically injured.

The ATSB found that Thomas had a “high-risk appetite”, a history of non-compliance with aviation laws, was unlicensed and unauthorised to fly the helicopter that day, and that he knew there was a serious problem with it before he loaded passengers onto that final fatal flight.

Amber Jess Millar was killed in July 2020 during the in-flight break-up of Robinson R44 Raven 1 helicopter VH-NBY at Broome. She was 12.
Amber died during what was meant to be the trip of a lifetime. Credit: Supplied by family/Supplied

Despite the ATSB’s damning findings, there has been no apology, accountability or justice for Amber’s grief-stricken parents.

For them, the ATSB’s final report – released in April 2023 – created further questions about how Thomas had been able to get away with so much, for so long, and why so many people had been complicit.

The Benbows begged the WA Coroner to scrutinise Thomas’ tourism operations, the circumstances of their daughter’s crash and the roles others had played in allowing his reckless conduct to fatally escalate.

But in November, Coroner Michael Jenkin refused their request for an inquest, saying he had sufficient evidence to make an administrative finding about their daughter’s death and that he did not believe holding an inquest would generate new information.

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The scene in Broome where a helicopter crash occured killing the pilot Troy Thomas and a 12 year old girl and left 2 critically injured
The scene in Broome where the helicopter crashed. Credit: 7NEWS/7NEWS

Since then, the media has continued to expose shocking revelations about the rogue pilot’s rule-breaking, near-death crashes and cover-ups in the years preceding the double-fatality in Broome.

At least three aircraft that Thomas owned or leased from his parents were lost at sea in the three years before he died.

In 2017, one of Thomas’s Robinson R44s, registered VH-SCM, crashed into the water after taking off for a charter flight from the top of a boat at Talbot Bay.

The written-off chopper belonged to his company Avanova Pty Ltd and was operating under the Air Operator’s Certificate of Outback Wrangler host Matt Wright.

The pilot and two passengers, who suffered minor injuries, had to exit the helicopter underwater and swim 50m to shore before being treated in hospital.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority was told that the helicopter had been recovered from the sea floor and transported to Broome, but CASA did not perform a visual inspection of the wreckage.

In 2018 a Cessna Caravan Amphibian – registered VH-PGA – crashed and apparently sank in the protected Lalang-gaddam Marine Park at Talbot Bay with two pilots onboard who were flying it from Derby to Horizontal Falls.

Thomas’s company Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures had leased the aircraft from his parents’ company West Coast Seaplanes Pty Ltd.

Authorities were initially told the seaplane had sunk near Koolan Island before being told it was actually near Slug Island.

Documents obtained by The Nightly through Freedom of Information laws – from CASA and WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions – excruciatingly detail how an evasive Thomas had given their investigators the runaround and lied to a local Broome journalist about the state of the seaplane.

Troy Thomas.
Troy Thomas was found to have a “high-risk appetite”, and a history of non-compliance with aviation laws. Credit: Supplied/SBS

Internal departmental emails also reveal the frustration of Parks and Wildlife Service investigators, who were focussed on preventing further environmental damage to their marine park, as they tried to determine the seaplane’s true location and arrange to observe the salvage operation, which Thomas insisted had to be kept top-secret.

“The facts seem to change every 20 minutes,” one bamboozled investigator emailed to colleagues.

A DBCA spokesperson confirmed that its staff were onsite when Offshore Diving Services removed the wreckage from the marine park in April 2018.

The seaplane was written off and claimed on insurance.

The following year, in July 2019, Thomas was involved in a near-death accident when he crashed a Robinson R44 Clipper II registered VH-ZGY off the top of his boat with two passengers onboard.

Thomas and his passengers – one of whom was also a pilot – all suffered severe injuries and the helicopter was destroyed.

By law this accident was “immediately reportable” but the ATSB was not notified.

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

Amber Jess Millar was killed in July 2020 during the in-flight break-up of Robinson R44 Raven 1 helicopter VH-NBY at Broome. She was 12.
Amber with her step father Clint Benbow and mother Fiona. Credit: supplied by family/supplied

Meanwhile, Thomas – who did not even have a private pilot licence – was performing commercial medical evacuations in his choppers and charging passengers thousands of dollars.

In July 2019, Thomas airlifted a passenger from luxury catamaran MV Diversity II, off the WA coast, in his Robinson R44 registered VH-ZGY.

In August 2019, Thomas airlifted a couple from expedition vessel Odyssey in a different helicopter and charged them almost $2000 for the service.

The couple received a $1936 invoice from Ultimate Outback Experiences, which traded as Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures.

Ultimate Outback Experiences did not hold an Air Operators’ Certificate. Nor did Avanova Pty Ltd, which owned the helicopter.

The RFDS has previously confirmed that neither Thomas nor his companies were contracted to its organisation.

News. Amber Jess Millar was killed in July 2020 during the in-flight break-up of Robinson R44 Raven 1 helicopter VH-NBY at Broome. She was 12. Pictured are her mother Fiona Benbow and step-father Clint Benbow.
Fiona Benbow and step-father Clint Benbow have vowed to continue their fight for justice. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

It was also revealed late last year that Thomas used his crowded industrial property north of Broome as a helicopter landing site – without council permission – for at least four years before the fatal crash despite it being just a few minutes’ drive from a regional airport where he had a hangar.

The private warehouse and residential premises at Bilingurr, which he purchased with his wife Sophie in 2007, was zoned ‘Light and Service Industry’.

The Broome Shire Council never received a request for approval, nor granted approval, to land and take off helicopters from the site.

And in 2018, five separate complaints – supported by photos and videos – were made to CASA about “unsafe behaviour” by helicopters badged Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures, which Thomas founded and owned at the time.

Videos of alleged dangerous flying – sent to CASA with written complaints about dangerous incidents in the Kimberley – show that the helicopters involved were not only owned by Thomas, but on at least one occasion, he was flying.

These revelations have incensed Amber’s already devastated parents, who believe multiple parties are responsible for their daughter’s death, including those who helped Thomas cover up previous incidents.

They want everyone connected to the crash and previous incidents to be called to give evidence at an inquest because the coroner is the only investigative body with the power to compel witnesses to answer questions and to do so truthfully.

Even WA Premier Roger Cook has previously said an inquest “looks like being the only vehicle that we can now rely upon to do that level of investigation”.

But the coroner is refusing to review his decision.

“The coroner has completed the investigation and findings into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Amber Millar and Troy Thomas, having determined that an inquest was not desirable,” a spokesperson said.

“That determination cannot be reviewed in the Coroner’s Court.”

The Benbows, who lost “our entire world” when Amber died, refuse to give up or be silenced.

“We will never stop speaking Amber’s name and honouring her as best we can until our very last breath,” Ms Benbow said yesterday. “That we promise.”

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