A horrific seaplane crash into a river in Sydney that killed a British catering tycoon and his family was caused by the pilot choking on carbon monoxide, an inquiry has found.
Richard Cousins, his fiancee Emma Bowden and their children died when their DHC-2 Beaver nosedived into Jerusalem Bay on the Hawkesbury River on New Year’s Eve in 2017.
Catering giant Compass boss Mr Cousins, 58, Ms Bowden, 48, her daughter Hannah, 11, Mr Cousins’ adult sons William and Edward, and pilot Gareth Morgan all perished in the crash.
The plane was operated by Sydney Seaplanes, which has been providing flights around the city’s tourist sites for 80 years.
After a three-year investigation hampered by the plane’s lack of a recording device, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau on Friday confirmed in its final incident report that exhaust gas leaked into the cabin, poisoning the pilot and passengers with carbon monoxide – reinforcing earlier update on the investigation in July 2020.
The family was on holiday from the UK and returning to Sydney after dining at a restaurant on the Hawkesbury when the single-engine 1964 DHC-2 Beaver seaplane crashed.
Gareth Morgan (pictured), 44, died when his aircraft crashed into Jerusalem Bay on the Hawkesbury River shortly after take-off during a New Year’s Eve joy ride in 2017
Richard Cousins, 58, a millionaire CEO, his fiancée Emma Bowden, 48 died in the accident (pictured)
The body of a passenger aboard a seaplane that crashed into the Hawkesbury River is brought ashore along with debris of the wreck at Apple Tree Bay, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in NSW, Sunday, December 31, 2017
NSW police and salvage personnel work to recover the wreckage of a seaplane that crashed into Jerusalem Bay, north of Sydney, Thursday, January 4, 2018
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
3.00pm – British businessman Richard Cousins, four members of his family and Canadian pilot Gareth Morgan board an eight-seater seaplane at Cottage Point to return to Rose Bay.
3.05pm – Flight starts taxiing towards Cowan Creek take-off area for the planned 35-minute flight south to Sydney.
3.11pm – Flight lifts off the water. A photograph from the front seat passenger’s recovered camera reveals the DHC-2 Beaver is airborne and heading northeast.
3.12pm – A person on the water takes a photo of the seaplane as it heads east towards the Hawkesbury River where it was expected to rise above the terrain and turn south to Rose Bay.
3.12pm – A final picture is taken by the passenger at Little Shark Rock Point moments before the plane turns and heads west.
3.13pm – Several witnesses see the plane head ‘directly’ towards Jerusalem Bay – a long and narrow stretch of water surrounded by steep terrain.
– Minutes later witnesses see the plane, now 1.75km from where it turned west, make a sharp right turn and nosedive into the water.
– ‘The aircraft collided with the water in a near vertical position,’ air crash investigators say.
Source: Australian Transport Safety Bureau interim factual report
The plane entered the bay, then made an unexpected, sharp right turn before its nose dropped and it pitched into the water, sinking 13 metres below the surface.
The pilot, who had taxied for 27 minutes before collecting passengers, had elevated levels of carboxyhaemoglobin in his blood when he died, a toxicology report found.
The other passengers also had heightened levels of the compound, which was almost certainly due to carbon monoxide leaking into the engine bay and then through three bolt holes into the cabin, the ATSB concluded.
Exposure to carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen in the blood and can lead to tiredness, shortness of breath, confusion and death.
‘The pilot would have almost certainly experienced effects such as confusion, visual disturbance and disorientation,’ ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood said in a statement.
‘This investigation report release will bring the families of those lost in this tragic accident a greater sense of understanding of the circumstances of the loss of their loved ones.’
The accident may have been prevented if the pilot had access to a carbon monoxide detector to alert him to dangerous gas levels before he became affected.
The ATSB has written to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to consider mandating the device for all aircraft.
The 11-year-old girl’s father received approval from the NSW Supreme Court in October 2020 to continue his lawsuit against Sydney Seaplanes over the accident.
Investigators found pre-existing cracking of the seaplane’s engine collector-ring, which could lead to exhaust leakage, and a breach in the plane’s firewall, which can allow gases from the engine bay to enter the cabin.
The discovery has led the ATSB to issue safety advisory notices to the industry focusing on the prevention and detection of carbon monoxide in piston-engine aircraft.
The bureau released its preliminary report into the fatal crash in January 2018, which found no evidence of problems with the DHC-2 Beaver.
Investigators instead turned their attention to Mr Morgan’s actions moments before the crash.
The plane departed from Cottage Point, in northern Sydney, headed for Rose Bay in the eastern suburbs.
The expected flight path should have seen Mr Morgan – a highly experienced Canadian pilot – taxi away from Cottage Point, take off and turn east to gain altitude over the Hawkesbury River.
Instead, he turned northwest and, flying below the height of the mountainous terrain, entered Jerusalem Bay and made a sharp right-hand turn before the plane dropped nose-down into the water.
Mr Cousins’ sons Edward, 23 (left) and William, 25 (right) were also killed when their seaplane plunged into the Hawkesbury River
Ms Bowden’s 11-year-old daughter Heather also died in the tragic incident
The Sydney Seaplanes aircraft was carrying a pilot and five passengers when it crashed at Cowan Creek, Jerusalem Bay on the Hawkesbury River
The route confounded those who knew the pilot, who was considered very experienced and safety conscious.
Sydney Seaplanes’ managing director Aaron Shaw remembered Mr Morgan as ‘an excellent and professional pilot as well as a highly respected colleague and man’.
Investigators had weighed up a number of theories, even considering the possibility Mr Morgan was accidentally knocked out by a passenger while taking photos.
Mr Cousins and Ms Bowden were due to marry in June 2018 and had been living together with her daughter Heather in Tooting, south-west London.
Neighbours described them as a ‘happy go lucky’ couple looking forward to their wedding.
Mr Cousins was chief executive of British catering giant Compass since 2006 and was named number 11 in the world’s 100 best performing CEOs by Harvard Business Review after turning a $2.8billion profit.
When Mr Cousins announced in September 2017 that he would be retiring from Compass Group, the company’s share price plummeted.
The 58-year-old had also served on the board of supermarket giant Tesco, but resigned in 2016 in protest at plans to buy wholesaler Booker.