Sydney seaplane crash pilot 'may have been knocked out by passenger taking photos'

Jonathan Pearlman
The pilot and five passengers were killed: Richard Cousins, the 58-year-old head of catering giant Compass, his sons William, 25, and Edward, 23, his fiancee Emma Bowden, 48, and her 11-year-old daughter Heather Bowden-Page - Reuters

Aseaplane crash in Australia which killed five British tourists last New Year’s Eve may have been caused by a passenger accidentally turning with a camera and knocking out the pilot, according to the airline’s new part-owner.

Jerry Schwartz, who recently announced a new partnership with Sydney Seaplanes, suggested that investigators were looking at the possibility that the front-seat passenger of the small single-engine plane moved to take photographs of the scenic Hawkesbury River below and struck the pilot with his elbow.

“The investigation has shown that safety is good and it’s actually believed to not be pilot error,” Mr Schwartz told The Australian.

“The current belief is the passenger at the front actually knocked out the pilot.”

The tragic crash occurred during a routine flight from the exclusive waterside Cottage Point Inn restaurant, about 20 miles north of Sydney, to Rose Bay on Sydney harbour.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the crash and is due to present a final report early next year Credit: Sydney Seaplanes/PA

Aside from the Canadian-born pilot Gareth Morgan, the five passengers aboard were Richard Cousins, the 58-year-old head of catering giant Compass, his sons William, 25, and Edward, 23, his fiancee Emma Bowden, 48, and her 11-year-old daughter Heather Bowden-Page. All six were killed.

Investigators have focussed on an “inexplicable” steep right-hand turn by the pilot, who veered off course before the plane’s nose dropped and it plunged into the water.

The plane, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, crashed during clear conditions at about 3pm on December 31.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the crash and is due to present a final report early next year. A preliminary report found the aircraft had no obvious defects and the pilot was well qualified and healthy.

Aaron Shaw, the managing director of Sydney Seaplanes, also raised pilot incapacitation as a possible cause.

“Something definitely happened to the pilot to incapacitate him,” he told The Australian.

Mr Cousins had travelled with his fiancée and their children to Australia to spend Christmas and New Year together.  His first wife died of cancer in 2015. He and Ms Bowden, the art editor for OK! magazine and daughter of former Conservative MP Gerry Bowden, had been due to be married in July. 

British senior coroner Peter Bedford said earlier this year that post-mortem examinations in Australia found the five British passengers died of head injuries or drowning or a combination of both. 

Mr Cousins reportedly left the bulk of his estate – about  £41 million - to Oxfam after specifying in his will that he would leave most of his money to the charity in the unlikely event that he and his sons died together.