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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 Talking post 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.

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  • 1
    Aidan Stanger
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Surely it’s more serious than the “lost” jet, as the ATC system for that would have detected a conflict well before the TCAS alarm?

  • 2
    julius grafton
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    In my humble 310 hours of private aviation, the two least happy experiences were with Darwin tower. Being military, they did not appreciate my hesitant transmissions as I entered, and departed, their turf by single engine light aircraft a decade or so ago.

    I’m sure they have entered the real world since…..

  • 3
    Rufus
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Whatever happens, Williamtown is first and foremost a fighter base, not a civilian airport. If the two uses are inconsistent, maybe we need to re-assess the increasing number of civil flights.

  • 4
    comet
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I think civilian lives come before any military needs.

    The near misses and close-calls have gone from being a monthly event to a weekly event in Australia. The coming aviation disaster is inevitable, just on probability.

  • 5
    Brett karran
    Posted October 10, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    As a 14 year Military ATC and now working within the SMS and Emergency Management environment, I respect your right to report incidents that have arisen in the course of the ATC duties. Why don’t you try and balance this by showing the statistics for the number of ‘controlled’ hours v number of incidents.

    Everyday, worldwide, our ATC both civil and military do a fantastic job keeping our skies safe. Yes, issues occur, yes – if not detected, they could be catastrophic. ATC and Aircrew work in partnership to keep our skies safe and Australia has some of the safest airspace in the world. Report that!!!

  • 6
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Brett,

    I’m surprised that you haven’t read the ATSB report I linked to concerning the Newcastle incident of February 2011 between a chartered defence Westwind that was on approach to Williamtown and the Virgin Blue 737-700 that was climbed away from Williamtown.

    Not only were the jets placed on a collision course, but deliberately done so, because as the report says, the controller assumed they would miss.

    They only missed because of the TCAS alert and advisory generated in the Virgin cockpit.

    This report also deals with 9 other then recent examples of defective military air traffic control at Williamtown. That is a very high rate of serial incompetency by military control at that airport.

    If you go back through the file of ATSB notifications of investigations currently displayed on its website you will find that incidents at Darwin whether in the ground operations or when aircraft are in the air display an alarming and persistent rate of failure on the part of the terminal and approach control.

    This performance is not keeping our skies safe. It is exposing us to unacceptably inferior levels of competency.

    Not even the minister has been able to get the operational figures you suggest that I publish. Early this year he instigated up an ATSB investigation into the rate of proximity incidents in Australian controlled airspace, which includes both military control of civil movements, and civil control of civil movements, in order to get such figures and other important data.

  • 7
    quick wins
    Posted October 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Is anyone making the connection between RAAF ATC competence, and the take over of Airservices Australia by ex RAAF ATC Officers in Senior Managwment positions?

    Chairman, CEO, Senior Service Delivery Line Managers…

    The special ‘club’ is reaping the same dividends in Airservices as they appear to be in RAAF-land. Bad news is not permitted to travel upwards. Directions are given as orders. It is the wrong culture for a safety based organisation.

  • 8
    Ben R
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Ben,

    I generally enjoy reading your articles but think you have massively overstepped the mark on this one. As a Darwin based pilot my flights are controlled by both Airservices and RAAF controllers daily. Controllers at both organisations are extremely professional without exception.

    To suggest the workload isn’t there for Darwin controllers to maintain their currency in the terminal or tower area demonstrates you have never operated here. Darwin ranks in the top ten for aircraft movements, the big difference from the likes of Sydney or Melbourne is the diverse traffic mix. Unlike Sydney or Melbourne with jet after jet all doing the same speed. It is not unusual to have a Boomerang or 172 doing circuits, with a Hornet on final, followed by a Brasilia, followed by a 737. All four aircraft are operating at massively different speeds. For a controller I’d imagine Darwin has the potential to be one of the most challenging operating environments (and completely different from enroute controlling that you compare them to!)

    We are aware the RAAF use Darwin for training once controllers have graduated from the School of Air Traffic, just as we occasionally hear new trainee controllers in our dealings with Airservices. The standard of a controller checked out by the RAAF appears to be equal to or greater than the service provided by Airservices and it is not unusual to hear some of the ex-RAAF controllers making an appearance at other aerodromes as a civie with Airservices.

    The reports I’ve heard so far sound suspiciously like a wrongly assigned transponder code. How this came about we are not told. Nor are we told whether the cause was system error, controller error or pilot error. 800′ is close, but it isn’t that close, given we are regularly intentionally separated by only 500′.

    Ben

  • 9
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Ben R,

    All good. Except that if the persistent display of unprofessional performance at Darwin and Newcastle continues unchecked it will kill.

    There is a terrible problem at Airservices. And at Darwin. The performance required is the same as it is at civilian airports. This is why I think we need one service, and we need it to be significantly more professional than the “I thought they would miss” excuse given by the defence controller that deliberately sent a Virgin 737 and a military Westwind flight on a collision course at Williamtown in 2011.

    That incident should have been a turning point, and nearly three years later, standards ought to be much higher, and the rate of incidents should have dramatically reduced.

    But they haven’t. If the system is incapable of producing safe separation it needs to be changed forthwith.

  • 10
    ltfisher
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    With all respect to ‘Quick Wins’ the statement that a number of the executives of Airservices are “ex RAAF ATC officers” just isn’t correct. I don’t think that any of those mentioned were ex ATC officers.

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