A brave and selfless pilot pulled four people alive from the burning wreckage of a mangled aircraft in Mpumalanga, South Africa, in a heroic rescue that was to cost him his own life, it has been revealed in an official air accident report that has just been released.
The report into the 2018 crash reveals for the first time, in incredible detail, how the pilot – David Goodwin (59) – sacrificed himself to save his stricken passengers when their light aircraft crashed into a remote mountain forest in Elandshoek Valley, after getting disorientated in thick cloud and flying into the steep valley during zero visibility.
Experienced British pilot David, who had taken over the controls from his partner, South African expat Michelle Tilley (49), almost saved the day as he desperately climbed to gain height.
But without realising it they were heading straight towards the valley peak and a ridge of trees, and slammed into them needing only 50 feet more height to clear them.
The trees were so thick that they stopped the forward momentum of the aircraft which then dropped vertically to the forest floor and exploded into a fireball.
The couple had flown over to South Africa from the UK for Michelle’s mother’s memorial. Together with her sisters and a nephew, the group had hired the plane to scatter Michelle’s late mom’s ashes, and were due at her memorial the following day.
In one photo the twisted propeller of the Cessna 206 is all that can be recognised with the charred cockpit area behind it where the five were seated which burnt out.
One poignant photo shows the tailplane of the aircraft with Bushpilot Adventure Flying Safaris emblazoned on it, and another shows the two surviving wings.
The cockpit area of the Cessna and engine of the plane were totally destroyed by the fire at the crash site on the 6750ft high peak in the Machadodop Sappi Forest.
It was from that blazing section of the plane from which David refused to save himself until he had rescued his friends in which he suffered horrific injuries that were to prove fatal.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority report reveals how David unclipped himself from his blazing seat yet remained INSIDE the plane – to save the others – as the flames enveloped his body.
The flames burned him for up to 90 seconds as he got everyone out the plane.
When he finally escaped himself, his clothes had been burnt off and he was naked and charred from head to toe, and his body had suffered deep 99% burns.
Incredibly, despite being in agony he then led his pilot partner Michelle and her sisters -Sharlene Tilley, Tania Collins – and nephew Ryan Collins, to safety.
The three sisters and Ryan (17) had also suffered serious burns and spinal injuries, but the report said David encouraged them to start walking to find help.
For over a mile he carried and supported badly injured Tania, despite his own dreadful burns, until they staggered out of the forest and onto a mountain track.
David then waved down two passing trucks, who at first sped past them when they saw the state they were in.
Michelle, a South African expat who was born in Benoni, has never spoken publicly about the ordeal… but after returning to the UK, she offered some insight on a Crowdfunding site she set up on Facebook to raise funds for the people who came to their aid.
She raised nearly £1,500 which her sister Tania – who still lives in South Africa – used to buy gifts and for a special lunch for the men who came to their aid, and for their wives.
Michelle said on the Crowdfunding page: “It was a frightful sight to see a naked charred man, a blood-soaked woman and three charred individuals stumbling down the road waving him down.
“The dangers in Africa could have meant that attackers were chasing us. He did not stop straight away as he did not know if stopping put them in danger.
“I remember him saying sorry for not stopping straight away and said ‘don’t worry you are safe now we will help you’ and a woman gave us first aid.”
Michelle revealed on the Facebook page that the workers, who were extremely poor, even gave them their own jackets off their backs to cover their burns.
Ambulances eventually arrived at the remote Elandshoek Valley which was just 30 miles from the airfield they took off from at Nelspruit in Mpumulanga Province, on their way to Wonderboom, Pretoria.
They were rushed to hospital for emergency treatment but tragically David died from serious burns to 99% of his body 48 hours later, despite surgeons efforts.
The just-published report into the accident reveals his 90 seconds of bravery after the crash freeing his partner and her relatives from the blazing plane wreckage.
The report commends him for getting all on board to safety, ignoring his own injuries and then selflessly walking the stricken group through the forest to find safety.
The three surviving sisters and David’s nephew have all been left too traumatised by the air crash in November, 2018, to relive the ordeal or the accident report.
David and Michelle, along with her sister Sharlene – who also now lives England with UK residency – had flown to South Africa to meet up with Michelle’s other sister Tania (who still lives in SA) after their mother died.
They had hired the aircraft to fly to a beauty spot in South Africa to scatter their mom’s ashes, and were due to return for a memorial service the next day.
After refuelling the Cessna 206 at Nelspruit Airfield they took off at 3pm heading for Wonderboom Airfield in Gauteng, but hit thick cloud.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority report revealed that Michelle was only qualified to fly by sight and descended to get out of the cloud and regain visual flight.
In doing so she inadvertently dropped into a valley covered by thick cloud; and then handed over the controls to partner David who was qualified to fly by instruments.
He pulled back on the controls to ascend and regain height but crashed into the trees at the end of the valley which had been covered in the cloud and not visible.
The high wing Cessna was just 50 feet from safety when it hit the top of the trees and its forward momentum was stopped and it crashed vertically to the first floor.
Although all five on board survived the impact of the crash the fuel tank ignited causing a huge fireball that began to envelop the cockpit from David’s door side.
However rather than leaping out and saving himself the official aircraft accident report revealed that he chose to remain in the flames to save the lives of his four passengers.
Michelle could not open her door due to serious crash injuries to her hands so with flames burning around him, David unbuckled his safety belt to reach her.
The report reads: “The aircraft’s height was already too low when he took control and it impacted the tree tops before crashing on the ground and bursting into flames.
“According to the Pilot in Control (Michelle Tilley) it was difficult for her to get the left door of the aircraft open as her hands had sustained serious injuries.
“The Pilot Monitoring (David Goodwin) unbuckled himself and opened the left door allowing her to vacate followed one at a time by the other three occupants.
“The PM then vacated the burning aircraft wreckage last but by then had sustained approximately 99% burn injuries as the plane was consumed by post-impact fire.
“All occupants of the aircraft walked to a nearby gravel road about a mile from the accident site where a private motor vehicle transported them to hospital.
“The PM succumbed to his burn injuries two days following the accident” it read.
The crash was on November 29, 2018, and the memorial service for the sister’s mum was set for November 30, 2018, and David died on December 1, 2018.
Investigators said David’s heroic actions, after the Cessna crashed and turned into a fireball, saved the passengers lives.
The report stated that the crash was “unsurvivable” and that it was remarkable that the five of them had managed to get out at all, although David tragically died.
What led to the air crash
The accident report also reveals detail of what happened before the the crash.
It said: “The PIC (Tilley) reported that 20 to 30 minutes into the flight at 7000 feet clouds developed round the aircraft and she reduced height to maintain visibility.
“During this time the aircraft was unintentionally flown into a valley which was also covered with clouds and she made a 180 degree but was still in the cloud.
“As she was not instrument rated she handed over controls of the aircraft to the pilot monitoring (David) who was instrument rated and he took over flying.
“The aircraft’s height above the ground was already too low and it impacted the treetops before crashing onto the ground below and bursting into flames” it said.
The report added that the aircraft was totally destroyed by the impact and the post-impact fuel-fed fire, and said the investigation considered it “unsurvivable”.
The report suggested that given the forecast the group may have been better off waiting a day to complete their return flight giving the weather a chance to improve.
But delaying the flight would have meant the three sisters would have missed their mother’s memorial service in Benoni near Johannesburg, and so they took off.
Tragically the cloud was thicker than anticipated and enveloped the aircraft at 7000 feet which and Michelle descended hoping be able to fly under the cloud base.
But the cloud was so low she entered a valley full of cloud without realising it and handed over control to David who tried to climb again but hit the trees at the valley end.
The report ruled that the crash was caused by a Controlled Flight Into Terrain by a pilot in control of an airworthy aircraft unaware of the “impending disaster”.
It also said a contributory factor was “poor flight planning”.
Both David and Michelle were fully qualified pilots and experienced skydivers who had completed several hundred high altitude parachute jumps together.
He had over 1100 flight hours on his pilot’s licence and Michelle had 175 flight hours on hers.
One of the bosses of Bushpilot Adventures, who owned the plane and spoke to the survivors in hospital, praised David as a “hero” for saving all on board the flight.
He said: “They were flying in good visibility and then hit thick cloud and had no way of turning the aircraft round and had to press on and try get through it.
“The more experienced pilot took over and was pulling back on full power trying to climb as he knew they were in mountains and was trying to get over the peak.
“Another 50 feet and he would have made it, that’s how close it was, but it came to a standstill in the treetops and then crashed down vertically and hit the forest floor.
“It caught fire and although David was in the midst of the flames he forcefully pulled everybody else out of the burning aircraft before he got himself out.
“Despite his burns he managed to lead the group down the mountain egging them on until he flagged down a passing truck who called the emergency services.
“David, I salute you. You sacrificed your life saving the others. Without your stubborn strength to pull everyone out the flames nobody would have survived.”
David’s partner Michelle said of the forest workers who came to their rescue: “Thank you is insufficient and inadequate so I wish you all abundant joy”.
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