TRIBUTES began flooding in yesterday for 63-year-old Lismore pilot Neville Bienke who was killed in a crop-dusting accident at a property on the New South Wales-Queensland border late Monday afternoon.
A highly respected pilot, flight instructor and long-time member of the Northern Rivers Aero Club, Mr Bienke died after his single engine Fletcher exploded mid-air and crashed during a crop fertilising operation just south of Dirranbandi in south-western Queensland about 4.30pm.
According to Queensland police, he was the only occupant of the aircraft and was killed instantly.
Witnesses believe Mr Bienke’s plane flew through powerlines – what pilots call ‘cobwebs’ and say are extremely difficult to see during low-flying operations – causing his plane to short out and explode before crashing.
Police and emergency services took several hours to reach the isolated crash site.
Australian Transport Safety Bureau sent a team of four investigators to the crash scene yesterday to initiate inquiries.
A bureau spokesman confirmed the aircraft ‘impacted terrain during agricultural operations’, fatally injuring the pilot. Queensland police will prepare a report for the coroner.
Mr Bienke began flying when he was eight under instruction from his father, the late, great Neville Bienke senior, a renowned pilot who was the former Chief Flying Instructor at Grafton.
Mr Bienke went on to win the Queensland Two-seater Gliding Championships in 1973 and coached members of the Australian Aerobatic Team from 1984 to 1988.
He and his wife, Helen, opened Cloud 9 Aviation from a hangar at Lismore Airport in 1990, offering air charter services before expanding into flight instruction and crop-dusting services.
Northern Rivers Aero Club president Wally Soward was devastated and said he would deeply miss his long-time mate.
“It’s a shocking blow for the club – he was always fun to be around but the knowledge he had will be irreplaceable,” he said.
“Unfortunately he’s in a dangerous game and something’s gone wrong. We still don’t know what the cause was but he was very well qualified to do this sort of stuff.
“Nev was a great family bloke – he loved his kids and his grandkids and he was looking forward to coming home for Christmas after that job.”
The club’s senior flight instructor, Geordie Paton, described Mr Bienke as one of the best pilots he knew.
“He’ll be seriously missed, he always had time and words of wisdom for you, and all the guys at the airfield,” he said.
Evans Head pilot Halden Boyd said the aerodrome community there was in shock.
“He was the last of the great barnstormers,” he said.
“We’ll miss him sorely here because he stole the show here year after year at our Great Eastern Fly In.
“He had an act where he’d go running around the tarmac in a crazy Biggles flying hat and pretend to steal the plane
“Then he’d take off and do the most amazing stunts and everyone was sucked in by it, so he literally stole the show.”
Fellow pilots plan to perform a ‘missing man formation’ tribute at January’s Great Eastern Fly In.
Mr Bienke is survived by his wife Helen, their five children and nine grandchildren.
Family members said funeral arrangements would be advertised in The Northern Star next week.