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How Skyhooks' Shirley Strachan flew to his death in a remote location where he was never meant to be is a mystery.

By Jacquelin Magnay
Mount Archer is a beautifully serene place, sun-drenched and rugged, overlooking a majestic vista of rolling hills, grazing cows, mobs of kangaroos and vineyards.
Apparently this is also Yowie territory, where the legendary "monster" frightened two schoolboys 25 years ago.
But it is unlikely that Graeme "Shirley" Strachan would have taken in the magnificence of the scenery or been spooked by legends as he manoeuvred the Bell 47 helicopter among the rugged and rocky escarpment north-west of Brisbane on Wednesday afternoon.
For one thing he would have been concentrating hard on his navigation equipment and his flight plan. His instructor mate, Graeme Gillies, from the Blue Tongue helicopter training school, had set him a pretty easy navigational exercise to complete. On his return Gillies would ask him about various landmarks to prove he had flown the route.
Strachan had left the Sunshine Coast airport just north of Maroochydore at 2.30 that afternoon and had to go to Somerset Dam, about 50 kilometres away. It was a flight that normally would take about 90 minutes.
Strachan had done a couple of these navigational duties before, including two solo flights on Monday. Earlier on Wednesday Gillies had taken him out for a dual training exercise over Maroochydore.
Life was pretty good for the Our House resident carpenter. He lived and breathed flying, regularly dropping over to his Cooroy neighbour, John McDermott, an owner of a commercial helicopter business, to talk choppers. The two had bought an Iroquois helicopter and were planning on taking mates on surfing safaris. Indeed McDermott and Strachan had gone for a flight together on Tuesday for the hell of it.
"It was Shirl's dream to throw a double bed in the back of it - they are pretty big birds - and hunt down the best waves," one friend said.
This was Strachan's third solo flight, although it was hardly daunting. He already had a full fixed-wing pilot's licence, had logged up 68 official hours and countless unofficial hours behind the controls.
"He was an above-average, enthusiastic pilot, who had exceptional co-ordination skills," said Gillies, who had spent the past two years helping Strachan get his helicopter piloting abilities up to scratch. Gillies said Strachan was just a few hours of solo flying from getting his full licence.
The only concern was the blustery wind conditions, which official weather reports listed as 30 knots at Sunshine Coast airport. Gillies, who was also up in the air in another helicopter at the same time, waved goodbye to Strachan at the start of his exercise. He reckons the wind was pretty even. "There was a headwind," he said. "But nothing that was worrying me."
But other pilots in the area at the time say the actual conditions were much worse, including occasional gusts of up to 50 knots. "It was a lunacy to be up in the mountains at that time," said one local operator who did not want to be named.
But that is the mystery of this sad tale.
Strachan, 49, was not supposed to be in the mountains at all. The flightpath set by Gillies skirted to the east of Mount Archer along the plains. Just why Strachan decided to deviate up the treacherous gully and escarpment of Mount Archer and expose his machine - a tough steel-framed helicopter built in the 1970s - to tremendous and unpredictable wind conditions has everybody perplexed.
Investigators and helicopter experts believe that Strachan was not pushed off his flightpath by the wind, which would have been a headwind on the outward leg, and that he made a conscious decision to fly up over Mount Archer. Just a week ago there had been a bushfire in the area, but it was hardly a tourist site.
"The coroner will be looking at how the incident was caused, but we don't know why he would have wanted to go up there, especially with the wind turbulence at that time," said Inspector Darryl Keys at the crash site.
It is likely that nobody will know why. Unlike aeroplanes, there is no black box recording in helicopters, although the car racing driver Larry Perkins has developed one and is marketing it at the moment.
"It is possible that he thought he should fly near the edge of Mount Archer. The plan was for him to fly at 2,500 feet, which is nearly a 1,000 feet above the mountain, and the mountain is just left of track, I don't really know - it is a real mystery," Gillies said.
But whatever reason, Strachan was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Initial speculation was that the helicopter simply ran out of fuel, but the fuel tanks were nearly full (and intact). Strachan had only been in the air for about 30 minutes when the crash happened three-quarters of the way up the escarpment - a remote, inaccessible spot from which what is left of Strachan's Bell 47 will have to be winched out by helicopter.
Another suggestion is that the machine stalled and he was trying to "float" down the gully to the safety of the nearby flat grassland.
Yet the theory with the most currency is that a downdraft of wind - not uncommon in the mountains - was so severe that it buckled the main rotor blade, causing it to hit the body of the helicopter and shear off the tail rotor.
Although most parts of the helicopter are at the crash site, the tail rotor is missing in the thick bushland. But whether that caused the crash, or was a consequence of the crash, is uncertain. The main rotor blade is at the site, even though a distant witness reported seeing it fold over. The helicopter was upright when it crashed, refuting an eyewitness who thought she saw it somersault and crash on its back.
Gillies, who was a shattered man receiving many calls this week, including some blaming him for the death, even raised the possibility that Strachan may have had a heart attack.
Most crashes are the consequence of pilot error.
"Who knows? We will have to wait and see," he said.

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Copyright © 2001 Pohogonot Farms. The information contained in this web site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of Pohogonot Farms Inc. All active hyperlinks have been inserted by Pohogonot Farms.

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Copyright © 2001 Pohogonot Farms. The information contained in this web site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of Pohogonot Farms Inc. All active hyperlinks have been inserted by Pohogonot Farms.