Sea World helicopter crash: Why chief pilot Ash Jenkinson and his colleague failed to see each other

Sea World helicopter crash: Why chief pilot Ash Jenkinson and his colleague failed to see each other

Investigators scour footage of helicopter disaster to find how the choppers got so close – as traumatised holiday-maker describes seeing doomed passengers happily board before crash that has eerie echoes of SeaWorld tragedy 30 years ago

  • Two helicopters collided and crashed near Sea World on the Gold Coast, Australia on Monday afternoon 
  • One aircraft slammed into a sandbank with it’s main rotor and tail rotor both torn off and found metres away 
  • Four of the seven people in one chopper were killed in the crash while another three are fighting for life 
  • The other helicopter with six people on board managed to regain control and land and all aboard survived 

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How two experienced pilots failed to see each other before colliding mid-air above a crowded theme park and killing four people will form the basis of a major investigation into Monday’s helicopter tragedy at SeaWorld on the Gold Coast.

Sea World Helicopters chief pilot Ash Jenkinson, 40, and three passengers were killed after their Eurocopter EC130 took off from the park’s helipad and seconds later hit an incoming EC130 – shearing off it’s main and tail rotors and sending it plunging 30 metres to a sandbank below where it crashed upside down. 

Three other passengers on board Mr Jenkinson’s chopper – understood to be a woman and two children – were rushed to hospital in serious conditions. The other aircraft managed to stablise and land upright causing only minor injuries despite the cockpit being smashed in and those on board showered in glass.

One of the hundreds of holidaymakers who witnessed the horror unfold said she had a panic attack after realising she and her husband along with their daughter, 8, were next in line to board the doomed helicopter.

The two helicopters involved in the collision can be seen on the sandbank – with one plummeting into the sand and the other landing upright

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Ash Jenkinson (pictured) was behind the controls of the helicopter which nosedived into the sandbar 

‘We are up from Sydney for a holiday on the Gold Coast and we spent the day at Sea World and thought we would book in for a joy flight,’ the woman, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Telegraph.

‘We watched the helicopter load with the people. There was the pilot and two elderly people in the front, a lady and a little boy next to her in the back, and another person next to them.

‘They buckled everyone up, everything was normal, everyone was excited, then we watched it all happen.’

Air safety experts told Daily Mail Australia that an aircraft already in the air would typically give way to a rising aircraft – with Australia Transport Safety Bureau now examining whether a communication error, system malfunction or some other failure led to the two helicopters colliding.

What happened 30 years earlier in a similar tragedy?

A Sea World helicopter setting off from the theme park crashed into South Stradbroke Island off the Gold Coast and burst into flames in 1991.

All seven people on board the Bell Long Ranger were killed. 

After a lengthy investigation it was determined pilot Glenn Wells, 27, had collapsed at the controls.

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Footage shot from holidaymakers on the ground shows both helicopters appearing to maintain a straight flightpath before the collision with neither appearing to alter course before impact.

Conditions appeared ideal with clear afternoon skies when the collision occurred. 

Sea World Helicopters has been operating at the site for about three decades.

Its early days were marked by an eerily similar tragedy when in 1991 a joy flight aboard a Bell Long Ranger plummeted into South Stradbroke Island off the Gold Coast and burst into flames, killing all seven people on board. 

After a lengthy investigation by the Bureau of Air Safety as it was then known, it was determined pilot Glenn Wells, 27, had collapsed at the controls.

The helicopter fleet has undergone multiple upgrades since then, being replaced with Eurocopter AS350 ‘Squirrel’ aircraft and the EC130s to cater for the up to 600 joy flight customers a day – along with an expansion to the ground facilities – making it the biggest privately owned heliport in Australia. 

The helicopters are fitted with Spidertracks GPS locating systems, which are designed to alert all pilots in the vicinity of the location of other aircraft.

‘It’s an easy system to use and the monitoring system compared to everything else is very reliable and accurate.’ Mr Jenkinson said in an interview for the company in 2021. 

He is being remembered as a ‘legend’ and ‘hero’ who leaves behind a wife, young son and members of his close family as well as hundreds of friends who knew the popular Gold Coast local as ‘Jenko’. 

Friend Ritchie Gregg recounted Mr Jenkinson volunteered to help deliver aid to the victims of the 2022 NSW and Queensland floods.

‘This will always be the highlight of my life and just one of your legacies when we helped flood people. Cheers,’ Mr Gregg wrote to Facebook.

‘My heartfelt condolences to your family. Blue skies my friend.’ another friend Chris Lea wrote.

Four people are dead after two helicopters collided in mid-air near Sea World on the Gold Coast theme park as horrified holidaymakers watched on

Four people are dead after two helicopters collided in mid-air near Sea World on the Gold Coast theme park as horrified holidaymakers watched on

Photos show emergency workers rush to help those on board the two Sea World helicopters

Photos show emergency workers rush to help those on board the two Sea World helicopters

Pictured: Paramedics and police on the scene on Monday afternoon

Pictured: Paramedics and police on the scene on Monday afternoon

Video from the Sea World helipad on Monday shows a holidaymaker and his young son watching the helicopter lift and then within seconds cross into the path of the second aircraft – with the child asking: ‘Is he going to crash?’.

Jetski riders and pleasure boaters nearby raced to the crash scene – just metres from the heavily crowded theme park and marina – and called emergency services as they frantically tried to aid those inside the wreckage. 

Witnesses told Daily Mail Australia one of the helicopters was coming in to land when it clipped the rotor of the other aircraft that was taking off.

Emma Burch, another witness, had the same account of how the accident unfolded.

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Ash Jenkinson (pictured with his wife) was the chief pilot for Sea World Helicopters and has been remembered as a 'legend' by his many friends

Ash Jenkinson (pictured with his wife) was the chief pilot for Sea World Helicopters and has been remembered as a ‘legend’ by his many friends

‘From what we saw one was taking off, the other landing. They clipped each other,’ she said.

‘Massive bang heard right through the Broadwater tourist park then the swooshing as the one that lost control hit the water and broke apart.

‘It’s just awful. Everyone is in shock.’

One of the helicopters crashed into the sandbar, leaving wreckage across the shore with the main rotor embedded in the sand some distance from the rest of the wreck.

The other helicopter managed to land on the sandbar, with six people on board, some of whom suffered non-life threatening injuries, mostly from the shattered glass.

Marine Rescue raced to the sandbar, seen in front of one helicopter with a Sea World logo

Marine Rescue raced to the sandbar, seen in front of one helicopter with a Sea World logo 

A young child was transported from the crash site by boat and then transferred to the RACQ Lifeflight helicopter and rushed to hospital in a serious condition

A young child was transported from the crash site by boat and then transferred to the RACQ Lifeflight helicopter and rushed to hospital in a serious condition

Pictured: Lifeguards and police officers on board one of several vessels that raced to the scene

Pictured: Lifeguards and police officers on board one of several vessels that raced to the scene

Operators of the theme park issued a statement in the aftermath of the tragedy. expressing ‘shock and deepest sympathy for those involved’. 

‘We and the entire flying community are devastated by what has happened and our sincere condolences go to all those involved and especially the loved ones and family of the deceased,’ the statement said.

‘We are cooperating with all the authorities including the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and the Queensland Police. As it is now a police investigation we cannot provide any further information at this stage.’

Paramedics transported one patient to a waiting helicopter to be airlifted to hospital

Paramedics transported one patient to a waiting helicopter to be airlifted to hospital 

The front of the Sea World helicopter that remained still upright sustained heavy damage

The front of the Sea World helicopter that remained still upright sustained heavy damage

It is understood the helicopter taking off clipped another helicopter above and then nosedived into the sand

It is understood the helicopter taking off clipped another helicopter above and then nosedived into the sand 

Witnesses expressed their shock at the mid-air collision.

‘I heard a bang and saw smoke billowing from one of the choppers. It was smoking and wobbling to the ground,’ one witness told Daily Mail Australia.

‘One person was asking whether it was part of the Sea World show.’

A distraught woman and child were seen at the helipad while part of the theme park was shut down so patrons couldn’t look out at the crash site. 

Others said watching the accident unfold was ‘beyond horrible’.

‘My daughter saw them. People on both. Landed on the sand not in SeaWorld thank goodness. Just praying for all,’ one said.

‘We heard a loud noise and saw bits of debris flying,’ another wrote online.

Ash Jenkinson is pictured in February 2022, delivering vital supplies to communities cut off by floods

Ash Jenkinson is pictured in February 2022, delivering vital supplies to communities cut off by floods

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Gold Coast resident Tor Kumpel was swimming in the broadwater with his wife when he witnessed the collision just after one helicopter took off.

‘It was only one helicopter that crashed. The one that was coming up. It was horrific to see,’ he told the Gold Coast Bulletin

‘The (pilot) who was in the other one that landed. They deserve a medal. It took a bit to steady but they did it.’

Blue Mountains resident Amii McDermot, 42, was in line at Sea World’s Vortex ride when she saw the crash unfold.

‘There was debris everywhere, the tail fell off one of them and the helicopter nosedived into the ground at full-speed.’

She said her two younger children don’t realise what they saw but her older two are quite shaken up. 

Investigators are racing to collect evidence before high tide covers the sandbar

Investigators are racing to collect evidence before high tide covers the sandbar

Officers scour the sand for pieces of debris that could assist the investigation into the cause

Officers scour the sand for pieces of debris that could assist the investigation into the cause

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said it has already commenced an investigation into the collision. 

‘Transport safety investigators with experience in helicopter operations, maintenance and survivability engineering are deploying from the ATSB’s Brisbane and Canberra offices and are expected to begin arriving at the accident site from Monday afternoon,’ ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell said.

‘During the evidence gathering phase of the investigation, ATSB investigators will examine the wreckage and map the accident site.’ 

‘Investigators will also recover any relevant components for further examination at the ATSB’s technical facilities in Canberra, gather any available recorded data for analysis, and interview witnesses and other involved parties.

The ATSB is asking for witnesses of the crash and those with footage of the collision to contact them immediately. 

A police report will be prepared for the coroner. 

Emergency services rushed to the wreckage just after 2pm

Emergency services rushed to the wreckage just after 2pm 

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Brett Lackey

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