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Virgin Australia 737-800 lost by air traffic control for 30 minutes

Air traffic control ‘inhibits’ a Virgin Australia 737-800 into being an invisible projectile for 30 minutes along the Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane corridor last Friday morning in one of the most unprofessional and dangerous lapses yet in the sorry record of Airservices Australia.

Last Friday morning a Virgin Australia 737-800 with 168 seats left Sydney for Brisbane.

Somewhere near Newcastle or perhaps a but further up the track, after the controller responsible for its departure from Sydney had handed over the flight to the officer responsible for most of its cruise north toward Brisbane, the flight was ‘lost.’

Its trace on the air traffic control screens was ‘inhibited’ as the ATSB puts it in its incident notification.

The action that was taken to render this jet airliner an invisible projectile was deliberate, in that it involves a considered and concise physical action, and horrifically unprofessional, and there are hints that an attempt may have been made to prevent the enormity of the event being properly reported, although it has been reported, and an investigation has begun.

It flew at high speed and high altitude through the busiest airspace in Australian skies, between Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane, without anyone in air traffic control, or any of the many jets of varying sizes that would have been under control in the space it was using, having any knowledge of its presence.

The first anyone knew that there was an invisible passenger jet flying toward Brisbane was when a Virgin Australia pilot called traffic control at a point where he or she would have normally expected to hear from the ATC system prior to entering the airspace nearer its destination.

The seriousness of this extraordinary situation isn’t conveyed by the summary posted this afternoon by the ATSB in notifying that the investigation had been initiated.

It was reported that the aircraft’s details were inadvertently inhibited in the Air Traffic Management system for approximately 30 minutes.

There was a loss of separation assurance.

The investigation is continuing.

There is a long and seldom generally reported history of dangerous and incompetent actions by AirServices Australia.

Its record in recent years is indefensibly sub-standard. But this incident represents a new low.

Let’s put it at its simplest.

Airservices is failing to deliver the fundamentals of a safe and secure air traffic control system.

This incident is the clearest of evidence that its standards are totally untrustworthy, and that no airline, foreign or domestic, can truthfully have any confidence that their passengers, their investments, and their brands, are safe in Australian air traffic controlled skies.

We have deteriorated to the level of being a dangerous embarrassment when a 737-800 can fly for half an hour through one of the 10 busiest air routes on the planet without any other aircraft, or the ATC system, having the faintest inkling that it is there, doing something like 850 kilometres an hour, through airspace which includes A380s and 777s  as well as a host of airliners of lesser size, any two of which can be destroyed by the inability of a developed country to provide a professional and well managed air traffic control system.

No doubt the usual fawning excuses will be made. But the facts involved in this particular incident ought to be of the gravest of concern to air travellers and the airlines and our political leaders.

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  • 1
    Mark Newton
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    And here’s the bit where we breathe a sigh of relief that TCAS was invented many years ago, rather than many years hence, and thereby able to provide a modicum of back-up when ATC is asleep at the switch.

    I remember people back in the day suggesting that TCAS was a waste of money because it wasn’t needed because ATC would be providing separation anyway, but here we are.

    – mark

  • 2
    ltfisher
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Who on earth decided to use the word ‘inhibits’ in this sort of situation? Surely a four letter word would have been satisfactory:I have in mind ‘lost’.

  • 3
    Frustrated Pilot
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    I remember this happening between BNE and MEL in an AN 737 back in 1994 or 1995. The aircraft was stealth for an hour.

  • 4
    julius grafton
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Hang on – the flight would have been squawking a unique transponder code. ATC give you your code so they can ident you on radar.

  • 5
    Lyannah Smith
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    The amount of misinformation in this article is comical.

  • 6
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Hey, share the amusement, with us, and with the ATSB, the poor misguided dears.

    If you could do so on the latest post, that would amuse us even more.

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