Bird strike caused fatal helicopter crash in Umgeni river, CAA finds

21 August 2021 - 10:03 By Dave Chambers and Suthentira Govender
Part of the wreckage of the helicopter that crashed into reeds on the bank of the Umgeni River in Durban on May 3 2021.
Part of the wreckage of the helicopter that crashed into reeds on the bank of the Umgeni River in Durban on May 3 2021.
Image: Supplied

Investigators probing a helicopter crash into the Umgeni river in Durban say a bird strike was to blame.

Pilot Derek Fitzgerald, 34, and student pilot Richard Morgan, 31, were killed on May 3 when their Robinson R22 plunged into the river near Parlock from about 500ft.

An SA Civil Aviation Authority investigation found feathers and blood on the tail of a plane, and a witness standing at a bus stop said he saw a flock of birds taking off from reeds in the river as the blue and white helicopter approached.

“One of the birds impacted the tail rotor and the tail cone was severed,” said the CAA report. “The helicopter then pitched down and spun out of control in a nose-down attitude with the main rotor flailing, and later crashed.”

The helicopter landed in a sandbank and reeds next to a bridge carrying the N2 over the river, and media reports at the time said vagrants living under the bridge made off with parts of the wreckage.

The crash happened 14 minutes after the Starlite Aviation helicopter took off from Virginia Aerodrome during a training flight for Morgan, a father of four from Hillcrest.

KwaZulu-Natal businessman Richard Morgan was killed in a helicopter crash on May 3 2021.
KwaZulu-Natal businessman Richard Morgan was killed in a helicopter crash on May 3 2021.
Image: Supplied

“The duo ... headed south towards the general flying area where they intended to perform confined area operation exercises,” said the accident report.

“After flying over the bridge, a bird impacted the helicopter’s tail rotor blade. The tail rotor blade subsequently cut through the tail cone skin and in the process, the tail rotor control bell-crank, the tail rotor driveshaft and the stabiliser were severed.

“The helicopter pitched down and spun out of control, whereafter, it crashed into the reeds on the bank of Umgeni River.

“No fire was reported after the accident. The helicopter was destroyed by impact forces and both occupants were fatally injured.”

A friend of Morgan's family, John-Mark Simmons, told Sunday Times Daily in May that the businessman's wife Amelia and their children, aged between six and 14, were devastated.

Flight instructor Derek Fitzgerald was also killed in the crash.
Flight instructor Derek Fitzgerald was also killed in the crash.
Image: Facebook

“Richard was a skydiver and he was learning to fly helicopters. He loved it; it was his thing,” said Simmons.

“He had a huge heart. He set up a fully-fledged kitchen for his staff of about 30 and fed them three meals a day. He never wanted anybody to be hungry.”

Simmons described Morgan, who ran engineering firm MorganCoat, as a “creative genius” who was into robotics and virtual reality.

“When Covid-19 came he bought those prefab containers onto site as temporary residences for his staff so they would be in a safe environment.

Ross Rodgers of the Olive Tree Church in Morningside, Durban, said on Facebook he was devastated by Fitzgerald’s death.

“Derek was one of the best young men I have ever met.”

The church said in a post that Fitzgerald served “in a large capacity throughout the years at Olive Tree and meant a great amount to us as a friend”.

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