The ATSB has today published Starved and Exhausted,  a study of fuellish flying in which aircraft were crashed either because pilots ran their tanks dry, or failed to switch over to reserves of unused fuel in time to avoid a total loss of power.

It’s highly readable, especially when the cases cited are followed up with the air safety investigator’s own detailed final reports.

But it leaves out the most infamous incident, the 18 November 2009 ditching into the sea in darkness near Norfolk Island, of a Pel-Air air ambulance flight which the ATSB’s own web site has been depicting as being in the finalised and about to be published state for almost 12 months.

One of the ATSB case studies on fuel exhaustion, a Victa AirTourer which crash landed dry on Hobart's Brooker Highway in 2010, and the very wet Pel-Air Westwind (below) which didn't make the cut

Perhaps Starved and Exhausted is just clearing the decks for the big one, since the Pel-Air fiasco calls into serious question the capability of CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, to protect the public rather than operator interest, in framing and enforcing rules applying to long over water flights between one speck of land and another.

In this particular case an ambulance flight operated by Pel-Air using a small Westwind II corporate jet took off from Apia to Melbourne via a refuelling point on Norfolk Island without sufficient fuel to make a last minute diversion to an alternative air strip.

The argument as to whether it was obliged or not to carry that fuel has flared ever since the accident occurred.

But in a dark and stormy night the Westwind, with six people on board, two pilots, two nursing or medical staff, a companion, and a person requiring hospitalisation in Australia, made four attempts to land on Norfolk Island before being ditched into the sea, where it sank leaving the occupants to tread water for 90 minutes before being rescued by boat.

The jet had flown past a limited number of opportunities to make an alternative landing as the weather conditions at Norfolk Island deteriorated markedly from those that had been forecast as clear prior to its departure from Apia.

In post crash interviews, John Sharp, the chairman of Pel-Air said the air ambulance flight had no Plan B for flying to an alternative airport if it couldn’t land at Norfolk Island, an observation calling into doubt its fitness to hold an AOC or air operator certificate.

He also went public with the captain’s identity, one Dominic James, declaring him a hero, which resulting in massive brain dead media coverage of Mr James, stripped to the waist in a swimming pool, posing for Cleo magazine as a participant in its recent Bachelor of the Year contest.

Soon afterwards, CASA suspended James’s flying licence, after issuing statements as to the absolute legal requirement under its rules for pilots to always fly with enough fuel to safety reach their destination or an alternative airport, a claim which has been argued to the contrary by those who actually read the regulations, which appear to exempt Pel-Air from adhering to the most fundamental of commonsense notions as to how to fuel jets operating remote inter-island flights.

The preliminary ATSB report into the accident is linked to this earlier article in Plane Talking.

The Pel-Air issues are also a reminder that CASA has approved the harmonisation of Australian life raft rules on the Qantaslink turbo-prop flights to Lord Howe Island to the international standard, meaning they have been abolished, since under world rules, hey, they aren’t needed, thus sinking the Australian standard, and quite possibly a plane load of passengers,  to the same lower if not lethal level as required to meet so called world’s best practice in aviation safety.

Like the Pel-Air nonsense, it’s a reminder that there is a race to the bottom going on in airline safety, and for the unlucky, it could mean to the bottom of the sea.

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