The ABC TV 4 Corners report into the Norfolk Island Pel-Air ditching has this evening shown CASA’s director of safety, John McCormick, making an attack on the flight’s captain, Dominic James and excusing every single deficiency the regulator uncovered in the company during a safety audit as not being a cause of the accident.
However the program is also posting online the safety audit that CASA tried to keep secret and which materially contradicts McCormick in that the safety regulator he heads found among many things that Pel-Air was in breach of the safety rules and was inadequate in its management of fatigue.
The interview and the audit read side by side support the program’s opening premise that CASA scapegoated James in preference to carrying out its obligations under law to pursue the company.
McCormick would well know, and has insisted before the Senate Inquiry into pilot training and airline safety, that it is the airlines or operators that are responsible for safety outcomes.
As pilot James said near the end of the program, he was the pilot of a company that was being overseen by a regulator. Last night, on national television, the head of CASA unloaded all the blame for the accident on a pilot who had not even slept properly for two nights, and was employed by an operator that was so poorly overseen by CASA that it uncovered massive safety deficiencies, while benefiting from a defective CASA rule that excused it from operating as an air ambulance without sufficient fuel to fly to an alternate airport if for any reason a remote refueling airport in the middle of the ocean was rendered unavailable by bad weather.
McCormick’s performance and statements on air are not only inconsistent with the body of law on airline or operator responsibility for pilot training and standards, but were manifestly unfair to the pilot, even though the pilot undoubtedly made serious mistakes in the preparation of the flight, its fueling, and in dealing with the available weather information as the Westwind jet approached Norfolk Island from Apia.
(The 4 Corners report by Geoff Thompson also uncovered evidence that critical weather information had not been passed on to James at a point where had he known of the real situation at Norfolk Island he would have diverted to Nadi in Fiji rather than passing the point of no return where he had to continue to the intended tech stop.)
A fair question arising from McCormick’s performance is whether or not he is capable of taking direct public action against a high profile airline or operator other than Singapore owned Tiger Airways, given the severity of a series of safety failures at Jetstar that were also declared to be unworthy of investigation by the ‘independent’ safety regulator the ATSB.
Regulatory matters aside, the human suffering caused by the unsafe operation of the air ambulance flight by Pel-Air was movingly documented by the program, as was the vigilance and determination of their rescuers on Norfolk Island that brought all six souls to safety from the wild and dark sea in which they had to tread water for close to 90 minutes.
It is utterly shameful to hear that Pel-Air has not once been in touch with Bernie Currall or her husband Gary since the accident, and to see the ruin and despair that the operator’s unsafe and negligent conduct brought to their lives, as well as to Karen Casey the nurse who has lost her livelihood and suffers continued pain from her injuries.
McCormick heads a safety regulator that approved the removal of special life rafts from Qantaslink turbo-props serving Lord Howe Island, and has been unable to release any safety case or statement as to why it allowed this to happen other than the downwards harmonization of Australian standards to the depths of world’s best practice.
It is also an organization that has never explained the safety case that saw it determine that the sort of aerial work performed by the Pel-Air flight didn’t need to carry enough fuel to make a diversion from an oceanic airstrip in bad weather, although it has only recently expressed an ‘intention’ to change a rule it should never have tolerated in the first instance.
The 4 Corners program is an indictment of shamefully deficient standards and oversight by our safety regulator, as well as its disposition to crucify a pilot rather than the company responsible for the flight and safety standards of its operations.
The program, and the supporting documentation, will be readily found on the ABC site in the near future.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.