Kakadu National Park chopper crash review highlights conflict within park management

A confidential, taxpayer-funded review into a Kakadu National Park helicopter crash, which seriously injured three men, has revealed a string of safety and communication problems in Kakadu and ongoing “personal conflict” among park staff.

The helicopter crashed in a remote section of the world heritage-listed park last May during a feral pig and buffalo cull, and saw two park rangers and the pilot airlifted to Royal Darwin Hospital.

The review of the incident, which has been obtained by the ABC, was undertaken by Melbourne-based Maddocks Lawyers for Kakadu’s Federal Government managers.

It found the cause of the crash “was likely to have been mechanical failure” but was inconclusive, due to an Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigation still ongoing.

But the review did find several “deficient” and “flawed” safety systems in place across the national park, some due to “incompatible … Canberra-centric policies and procedures”.

“The safety systems and procedures for [Kakadu National Park] are deficient … and not at best-practice standard,” the report read.

“There is a disconnect between the resources that are provided from Canberra and the needs of [Kakadu] staff.”

The review into “the incident and its aftermath” was completed late last year but until now had only been seen by Parks Australia’s managers, departmental staff and members of the park’s independent board of management.

Three men survived the crash that happened during a feral animal cull.(Supplied: CareFlight)

Park chair expresses dissatisfaction

Kakadu’s long-term board of management chair, Maria Lee, said the review did not go far enough, and criticised its authors for not speaking with the crash victims themselves.

“The evidence that we got didn’t satisfy us at all,” said Ms Lee, a Bininj traditional owner.

“And they didn’t even speak to the victims, and ask them questions: how did they feel?”

A man being winched by a helicopter.
A ranger is winched to safety by CareFlight after the chopper crash in Kakadu.(Source: CareFlight)

The two injured rangers, Fred Hunter and Ian Conroy, remain employed by Parks Australia, meaning they were not permitted to speak freely to the media about the review.

Andy Stott, the former chopper pilot for sub-contractor Jayrow, was contacted for comment.

Ms Lee said she still had “sleepless nights” thinking about the incident and called for a second independent review to be carried out.

A spokesman for Parks Australia said the taxpayer-funded review cost $23,500 and that “changes are being made to improve safety systems”.

“As part of these changes, Parks Australia continues to consult with staff in Kakadu to ensure their cultural and locational needs are carefully considered,” the spokesman said.

“The ATSB is yet to determine the reasons behind the crash, but there is nothing in the Maddocks report to suggest that changes to park safety practices could have prevented the incident from occurring.”

The board is chartered to jointly manage the park alongside the Commonwealth agency, but Ms Lee said the collaborative decision-making processes had broken down in recent years.

Earlier this month, Ms Lee hit out at Parks Australia for backflipping on a pledge to open Kakadu from coronavirus restrictions on June 5 rather than the now-promised date of June 18.

Looking down from the top of Gunlom Falls in the Northern Territory.
The crash occurred near Gunlom Falls, about five kilometres from the highway.(ABC Open: Heath Whiley)

Review uncovers staff infighting

The review also found there was a “level of personal conflict amongst departmental staff at Kakadu pre-dating [the crash] that has the potential to cause problems”.

It revealed how park staff had “expressed some frustration about how the response [to the crash] was handled and dissatisfaction with how the park manager coordinated the response”.

However, it also found the anger at the manager’s response to be “unwarranted”, and instead was “indicative of communication issues, both technical and personal”.

A spokesman for the ATSB said its separate investigation into the crash was continuing and would likely be finished later this year.

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