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Photo op cause of fatal crash for ex-Singaporean Air Force jets: ATSB

The manoeuvre that resulted in the collision of two former Singaporean Air Force SIAI-Marchetti S-211 light aircraft near Melbourne in November was performed because of a “good filming opportunity”, the ATSB has said.

The manoeuvre that resulted in the collision of two former Singaporean Air Force SIAI-Marchetti S-211 light aircraft near Melbourne in November was performed because of a “good filming opportunity”, the ATSB has said.

VH-DZJ crashed in Port Phillip Bay on 19 November 2023 after colliding with another S-211, VH-DQJ, during an aerobatic formation filming flight. In its preliminary report, the ATSB noted that no analysis or findings have yet been released as part of the “no blame” phase of the investigation.

The two jets, formerly owned by the Singaporean air force and used for jet training, were being operated by Jetworks Aviation, the flying school owned by Stephen Gale. Gale, who was piloting VH-DZJ at the time, was killed in the crash along with cameraman James Rose.

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The two aircraft had left Essendon Airport in “Viper formation”, with VH-DQJ, “Viper 1”, carrying a pilot and safety pilot, while VH-DZJ, “Viper 2”, carried Gale and Rose.

“As discussed in the pre-flight briefing, the pilots’ first planned manoeuvre involved Viper 1 flying inverted, straight and level, so Viper 2 could move alongside it, upright, to then manoeuvre as required to maintain separation and conduct filming,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell.

The second attempt at the manoeuvre saw Viper 2 pass below and to the left of Viper 1 as the latter rolled inverted, the report noted.

“The safety pilot in Viper 1 observed Viper 2 pass beneath and alerted the pilot of Viper 1 to the manoeuvre,” said Mitchell.

“Afterwards, the pilot of Viper 2 advised the pilot of Viper 1 that it provided a good filming opportunity and asked to repeat it.

“On this next attempt, after Viper 2 passed beneath, it began to pitch up and bank away from Viper 1, and the right wings of each aircraft collided.”

This caused the outer right wing structure on Viper 2 to immediately fail, with significant damage to the aileron control system as well as deformation of the forward wing spar and separation of the lower skin. Viper 2 fell near-vertically and at high speed into Port Phillip Bay, while Viper 1, which had sustained only minor damage, was able to call a mayday and return safely to Essendon.

“Several impact marks and paint transfers from Viper 2 were present on the upper surface of Viper 1’s right wing, and its landing light cover was shattered,” said Mitchell.

The ATSB said it will continue to investigate areas including formation flying procedures, as well as video and audio taken during the flight and a review of the category of operation, as it compiles its final report.

“If we identify a critical safety issue during the course of the investigation, we will immediately notify relevant parties so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken,” said Mitchell.

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