It has been revealed that the Pel-Air Westwind jet that was ditched near Norfolk Island in 2009 was not equipped for RVSM or reduced vertical separation minima operations and that this significantly degraded the legal flight options available to its pilots on the night of the crash.
This vital consideration is not taken into account in the ATSB final report into the incident, and adds to the case that this inquiry by the ‘independent’ safety investigator is a vindictive travesty that has consciously set out to deceive the public and protect the operator, Pel-Air, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Regional Express.
The report by the ATSB purports to make a detailed analysis of what it labels as inadequate flight planning and fueling by the crew, but leaves out any analysis of the consequences of the crew having to abide by the legal restrictions that apply to the cruising altitudes of aircraft without an approved RVSM package.
Because of inherent inaccuracies in older generation altimeters that become more apparent above 29,000 feet, the minimum altitude separation in cruise between that height, and in most but not all cases, 39,000 feet, has been 2000 feet for most of the jet age, up until the mid 90s.
With the availability of better altimeters and greatly improved autopilot performance in terms of adhering to preset altitudes, a protocol was phased in by which aircraft with RVSM altimeters and autopilots could adopt a 1000 feet minimum separation at these higher flight levels, which has long applied to lower flight levels.
Pel-Air did not invest in RVSM, but in the oceanic airspace controlled by the Auckland tower through which this particular flight had to pass, the flight levels between 29,000 feet and 39,000 feet are denied to non-RVSM aircraft except in continuous ascent or descent for purposes of exiting that zone.
Going by the Pel-Air operations manual, which is quoted at length in the ATSB report, and in particular at page 30 for the impatient, the guide to fuel planning required by its pilots on that night included transiting through airspace in which the optimum fuel burn altitudes were denied to them if an honest declaration of non RVSM capability was made to the Auckland tower.
Pel-Air often flies its Westwinds through this airspace, and one assumes, they either descend to flight level 27,000 feet to stay legally separated from the RVSM band, or at 39,000 feet or above, which is right at the limits of plausible sustained flight for the type performing any useful mission.
The ATSB report notes the requirement to descend to 27,000 feet mid way to Norfolk Island as requested by the Auckland tower, and the ABC 4 Corners report reveals that the pilot at that point, was able to climb the jet to 39,000 feet, presumably because he had reduced the fuel uptake at Apia to keep the jets weight at a level where this is possible.
Had he descended the flight to 27,000 feet because he had fully fueled the jet at Apia he would have experienced higher than optimum fuel burn, a point that is discussed, dismissively, in the ATSB report.
But what is not discussed in the report is that Pel-Air expected its pilots to dance around a cruise altitude exclusion zone that seriously impaired the performance of the jet making such a long inter island flight because it hadn’t spend the money needed to keep aerial ambulance equipment at a level of capability that a medical client might have assumed was a given in a modern, well regulated, vigilant, professionally managed system of regulatory oversight.
This is not a criticism of ATSB investigators. It is however a damning reflection on the chief commissioner of the ATSB, and CASA, and by default, the Minister, that such a miserable and disgracefully contrived report should have been released in the form that it has come out.
It is strongly recommended that readers submit themselves to the 18 minutes and 46 seconds of the raw uncut video on the extended interview section of the ABC TV 4 Corners site where the chief commissioner Martin Dolan is grilled by reporter Geoff Thompson, where he asks why the report focuses on the deficiencies of the pilots, who were carrying out the instructions of the operator, yet never mentions the more than 20 breaches of safety regulations that Pel-Air was found by a CASA audit to be committing at the time of the accident.
Dolan keeps admitting that Pel-Air was in the broader context, as he puts in breach of the rules, yet not, for the specifics of the investigation in breach in any way, at the moment in time six people ended up treading water in the middle of the night in a wild sea because of a massive regulatory and operator failure.
It is an appalling performance by Dolan. It is a disgraceful report by the ATSB. It is profoundly damaging to Australia’s air safety reputation at the all important administrative level, and it is a deliberate attempt to deny the Australian public the information they need to have available to make choices in air services.
What does the Minister, Anthony Albanese, have to say about this? Is it all harmony and light, and nothing to worry about, or is something rotten to the core? The question has been asked.