Queenstown Airport layout makes chopper collisions 'more likely': report

by Kim Bowden - Jun 27, 2024

A report has found both Queenstown Airport's layout and departure procedures contributed to two helicopters coming too close to each other during takeoff in 2022.

Although both the helicopters were cleared for departure there was confusion about the order in which they were doing so, resulting in them coming within 44 metres of each other in the air. 

However the enquiry into the incident by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission reveals initial reports of one of the pilots having to take evasive action to avoid a mid-air collision were incorrect.

In its final report released today the Transport Accident Investigation Commission says what one pilot had initially perceived to be an "evasive manoeuvre" had actually been "a standard turn on departure" instead.

The report details that on December 27, 2022 the two Airbus Helicopters - ZK IUP and ZK IDB - were cleared to depart the airport from the general aviation zone in the south of the location.

Although ZK IUP was cleared to take off in first position, and ZK IDB in second, this order became confused due to visibility issues.

Instead, ZK IDB passed above and to the left of ZK IUP, taking the lead on its way out.

"The pilot of ZK IDB did not positively identify the location of ZK IUP because of the initial orientation of their helicopter, and the location of a hangar between the two helipads."

The report concludes the set-up of the airfield itself contributed to the incident, and this has also been identified by users.

"The Queenstown Aerodrome southern apron layout, requiring all helicopter movements to arrive and depart via the intersection of taxiways Bravo and Yankee, creates a bottleneck for helicopter operations.

"The congestion and visibility issues of helicopters operating at Queenstown Aerodrome have been identified by the Queenstown Milford User Group and Queenstown Airport Corporation."

The report also identifies more general safety concerns, saying "At Queenstown Airport's Southern Apron, conflicts and collisions between uncontrolled aircraft are more likely because of the combination of the apron layout and management of aircraft flying into controlled airspace".

However, the commission itself has no recommendations for the airport as it says the Civil Aviation Authority and Airways, along other stakeholders, are already taking action to resolve the issues flagged by the report.

On their agenda is an improved departure procedure that will require a pilot to report having seen the preceding aircraft in the departure sequence prior to being cleared themselves for takeoff.

A new traffic control service for helicopters operating in the currently uncontrolled southern area of the aerodrome is also under consideration.

The helicopters involved in the incident were operated by Over the Top Helicopters and The Helicopter Line, and both the pilots were local.

Main image (TAIC report): The two helicopters on takeoff at Queenstown Airport, December 27, 2022.

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