Darwin ATC sent two Qantas jets on collision course
The case for abolishing military air traffic control at Darwin and Newcastle airports is urgently compelling following another instance where two passenger jets were directed to fly on a collision course
On 2 October at Darwin Airport, two Qantas passenger jets, a Boeing 717 on approach from Alice Springs, and a Boeing 737-800, departing for Melbourne were instructed to fly on a collision course by a defence air traffic controller.
Despite the downplaying of the incident in the ATSB investigation notification the information in authoritative circulation is that this was one in which jets with a seat and crew capacity of 295 people between them came incredibly close to colliding.
It is every bit as serious as the disappearance from active surveillance and system knowledge of a Virgin Australia jet that was lost by Airservices Australia for 30 minutes on 28 September for most of its flight between Sydney and Brisbane.
Both are evidence of a crisis in air traffic control safety in Australia, in which the dice, in terms of incompetent controllers and derelict management, continues to get rolled.
They should also raise, given the recent history of incompetent actions by military controllers at each airport, the case for absorbing the defence ATC service into Airservices, hopefully an Airservices which is also urgently reformed.
The ATSB has made numerous inquiries into incidents of loss of separation or separation assurance at both airports, which are military facilities in which terminals under private (Darwin) or local government (Newcastle) ownership have made lease and access arrangements with defence.
Some of those inquiries have lead to final reports which are damning in their narrative and findings, with the strongest being a report issued in March in response to a February 2011 incident in which a Virgin Blue 737-700 taking off from Newcastle was knowingly directed to fly head on towards an approaching military Westwind corporate jet charter.
The ATSB found that the controller responsible for this decision had assumed that the jets would miss, when it fact, it was only a TCAS alarm in the Virgin jet that caused it to fly away from the on coming smaller jet, which was not equipped with TCAS.
Getting the truth out of ATSB jargon is like pulling teeth, as shown in this extract from the Plane Talkingpost on its findings.
The ATSB report goes into the technical aspects of this exceedingly close thing in great detail, however from the point of view of the public, or the responsible minister, the facts established are that the defence air space controllers put two aircraft on a collision course, and as the safety inquiry notes, later said that they had expected the Virgin Blue jet to pass behind the incoming Westwind, which is a stunning indictment of their actions, since it also meant that they anticipated it would be climbing up to and toward the smaller jet but would ‘miss it’.
If these clowns had been wrong, more than 150 people would have died, they would quite probably gone on trial in one of, if not the biggest manslaughter trials in Australian criminal history, and a Royal Commission would be pulling apart nine ‘breakdowns of separation’ between 1 January 2010 and 30 June 2011 in addition to this gravely serious occurrence involving Williamtown air traffic control that had been reported to the ATSB to determine how appropriate the training and administrative responses of defence and the minister had been in relation to them.
The military controllers who direct Qantas jets toward each other at Darwin, and have in the past mislead foreign airlines using Darwin airport, and have exhibited entrenched, repetitive and serial failures in relation to keeping aircraft safely apart while they are on the ground, never mind in the air, don’t manage the separation of military jets involved in combat training flights or other exercises.
Their role is only that of separating civil traffic including airliner or freighter charters supporting military needs, but flown as always, according to civil air space rules. It is perhaps lack of practice that causes them to discharge their role badly and dangerously to a degree which although it may be small, is unacceptable in the developed world. The military controllers who are routinely endangering civil and private aviation at Darwin and Newcastle don’t have enough to do when compared to the higher pressure skills expected of controllers responsible for high frequency airline corridors and airport terminal area movements at busier airports.
There is no justification for their existence when many mixed use airports, including those in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually use contract service providers who source their air traffic controllers from civil providers.
It is clear for a number of reasons that the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, is acutely aware of the issues that are compromising public safety in air transport in this country. But as well as running a very complex and important portfolio, Anthony Albanese is also the leader of government business in the House of Representatives, a work load that seems designed to either fail or break anyone in his position.
Whatever PM Kevin Rudd was thinking when he devised this ministry structure, or whatever the current PM Julia Gillard was thinking when she left it untouched, it is one that is more than capable of failing or breaking aviation safety in Australia.
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.