Andrew Wilson Photo: Channel 7With his plane veering ever closer to the roofs of Sydney suburbia, Andrew Wilson spent his last minutes seeking a place to land. He failed. David Humphries and Malcolm Brown write.
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ANDREW WILSON knew he was in serious trouble as he tried to guide the six-seater charter aircraft to a safe landing in the middle of Sydney suburbia. ”We’re gonna have to put it down on the road,” he said, a challenge that would put the frighteners up battle-hardened aviators.

It was not so much what he said, however, as how he said it. For the last 2½/ minutes of his life yesterday, the 28-year-old pilot discussed options with the control tower at Bankstown Airport, maintaining a calmness that belied the life-and-death urgency of his situation.

”We’re not maintaining height here,” he told Bankstown, matter-of-factly. ”You got any sight? Are there any good roads around?” He could not see the M7 or Warwick Farm racetrack. The clearest view was of Canley Vale Road but traffic was building as children began arriving at Canley Vale public school.

By then, options had run out for Mr Wilson and his nurse passenger. The Piper PA-31P Mojave was losing altitude. Their fates were sealed but the events that followed – horrible though they were – would spare residents and school children alike.

”Miraculously, no houses were damaged or the nearby school,” said Superintendent Ray King, the Cabramatta police commander.

Just what happened to Papa Golf Whisky (PGW) will take much engineering detective work, not least because the fireball that resulted from the crash destroyed so much evidence.

The charter left Bankstown at 7.50am for Brisbane, to collect a medical patient to transport to Albury, but trouble struck 15 minutes into the flight. With his plane over Richmond air base, Mr Wilson, a Victorian who settled in Sydney a few years ago, reported engine failure.

He ignored Richmond and attempted a return to Bankstown. Greg Madden, an investigator with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said fog may have been behind that decision.

Kathy Sheppard, a 48-year-old mother with four daughters, was on board as the inflight nurse. Ms Sheppard, from King Creek, west of Port Macquarie, worked as a midwife before joining the patient transport company Wingaway.

She had a long association with the Port Macquarie Base Hospital, were she worked as a midwife for years.

Dieter Siewert, a part-owner of Skymaster Air Services, said Papa Golf Whisky was not on a medical emergency. The mission was a routine flight that Mr Wilson carried out three or four times a week.

A mechanic, Sam Elawar, saw the plane coming in low from 500 metres away. One engine was operating but with not enough power to lift the plane. ”I thought it was going to hit the workshop,” he said.

The plane roared past, hit a power pole, careered past the school and sent out a stream of sparks from the power lines before it hit another pole with such force the pole snapped. The plane crashed on to the road and exploded minutes later. Fuel leaked into the drains and caught fire, roaring up through a grill on the opposite side of the road and setting fire to a car.

Kevin Huynh, 33, was alone in his house next to the school. With flames several metres high, he bolted over the fence into the school grounds. ”People in the school were yelling out and everyone was helping neighbours get over fences,” he said.

A car with a man and three children was hit by debris. He got the children into Adams Park, where 80 people quickly gathered. The school was evacuated. Its principal, Cheryl McBride, said: ”We can’t believe just how fortunate we have been.”

Calvin Figureoa said he would have been dropping his son Calvin, 8, near where the plane crashed but had been delayed.

Power was cut to 13,500 residences but was mostly restored within hours.

It is the third incident involving Airtex Aviation – which oversees a number of smaller aviation companies including Wingaway – in nine years. Two years ago one of the company’s light planes crashed into water off Sydney, killing the pilot. In 2001, an Airtex pilot managed to land his plane, with nine passengers on-board, at Cootamundra airport after an engine fire had destroyed its landing gear.

In the past four years, at least 10 people have died in light aircraft crashes in NSW.

with Georgina Robinson, Nick Ralston and Paul Bibby