The long awaited final report into the 18 November 2009 ditching of a Pel-Air air ambulance flight into the sea at night near Norfolk Island will be released this Thursday.
The incident achieved notoriety at both the shallow and deep ends of media coverage, at one extreme turning the pilot, and Cleo Bachelor of the Year contestant, Dominic James, into the hero of the day, complete with photos of him standing shirtless in a swimming pool.
But at the deep end, it raised very serious regulatory issues, and caused serious physical and professional harm to at least one of those on board.
The air 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, with the conduct and circumstances of the flight already described in considerable detail in an ATSB interim report.
That report however did not resolve the argument as to whether it was obliged or not to carry that fuel which has flared ever since the ditching 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.
Sharp also went public with the captain’s identity, declaring James a hero by press release even as CASA began its own inquiries, which resulted in its suspending 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.
That claim was however argued to the contrary by those who had actually read the regulations, which appeared to exempt Pel-Air from adhering to the most fundamental of commonsense notions as to how to fuel jets operating remote inter-island flights.
Since then James has taken out a license to fly helicopters, and has almost completed sitting for the exams which will restore his license to fly fixed winged aircraft, like the Westwind, which is now a wreck site for scuba divers.
In 2010, less than a year after the ditching, CASA revised the rules applying to air ambulances flying to remote islands without specifically referring to the Pel-Air incident.