Sydney – An Australian airline says it has received more than 100 threats after an online conspiracy theory that its pilots triggered a flood disaster. Conspiracy theorists spread that After weeks of torrential rain, deadly flooding has hit the East Coast for the past two months, engulfing homes and sweeping cars off the streets.
Posts shared online alleging Handel Aviation air survey pilots caused a second deluge in the flood-stricken town of Lismore, New South Wales, on March 31 by seeding clouds – dispersing a substance in the clouds to trigger rain.
“A pilot from Handel Aviation in a Cessna 210N Centurion VH-JIL performed a cloud seeding run over Lismore South & Ballina today while surveying the massive flood below,” reads a widely shared post.
The trajectory of Handel Aviation’s VH-JIL plane criss-crossing flooded areas was also shared online by Australian fashion designer Alice McCall, along with claims it was dropping chemicals to “activate rain”.
Handel Aviation operator Mark Handel told AFP on Thursday that the company didn’t see any clouds.
The flight collected imagery for aerial maps provided to Australian mapping company NearMap, he said.
“Handel Aviation only operates aerial photography aircraft. Our recent flights over flooded areas of NSW and QLD are in response to the flooding,” said a statement on Handel Aviation’s website.
NearMap confirmed to AFP that the photos taken by Handel Aviation were commissioned to map disaster-hit areas for insurers and emergency services.
“These aerial surveys are commissioned after major weather and natural disasters, including the recent East Coast floods,” the NearMap spokesperson said.
The claims circulating online led to more than 100 threats to Handel Aviation, although the contact page on the company’s website explained the purpose of the flights.
“We had really strong threats. Like, ‘We have the names of the pilots, we know where you live, you’ll pay for it,’ that sort of thing,” Handel told AFP.
Handel said he had his operations manager, Anthony Berko, reply to every email and call people who gave their phone numbers.
Some of those he contacted were surprised or upset, Berko said. But others were distraught, telling the veteran pilot they had lost everything during the floods and thought the company was to blame.
“They needed a shoulder to cry on and hear their story. You basically lost everything and then someone said, here’s your answer,” Berko said.
Despite online claims, cloud seeding is not responsible for the East Coast flooding, weather modification expert Simon Siems said.
Siems, a professor who leads a Monash University team studying cloud and precipitation, said the practice is not being done in the Northern Rivers region and cannot cause flooding.
“Cloud seeding isn’t that effective, people only do it in very special circumstances,” he said.