A pilot who was lawfully permitted to review the final draft report by the ATSB into the 18 November 2009 ditching near Norfolk Island of a Pel-Air medical evacuation flight says he was fobbed off by the safety investigator and the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, when he objected in advance to its publication because of errors and omissions contained in the draft.

Plane Talking has seen the correspondence and some relevant matters which will be examined by in Senate committee hearings into the ATSB’s handling of the investigation and related matters.

These are serious matters that need to be raised under parliamentary privilege.

They suggest that the public administration of air safety in Australia is variously incompetent and compromised.

In an email directed to the attention of the Minister, the pilot, who has a long career in defence and civilian air transport in Australia and abroad, says:

“Tomorrow, the ATSB will release a Final report into an aviation accident at Norfolk Island.

The Final report in it’s current form contains factual errors. These have been brought to the attention of the (name and position withheld), and also the (name and position withheld).

Despite these many areas under dispute having been brought to the attention of both of these men on numerous occasions and requests that the Final report be delayed pending dialogue to resolve the inaccuracies, (name withheld) has determined that this report will be released tomorrow.

(Name withheld) has also let it be known that he is expecting a lot of media attention. I ask what is the point of media attention to a factually incorrect report?

Obviously a report with facts in dispute should not be released. Having spoken to both pilots concerned and as a professional aviator myself, I am left dismayed at the attitude of the ATSB and their willingness to issue such a questionable report. As Minister, I would ask you to stop the release to give all parties involved the opportunity for continued dialogue before it’s release.

At the moment, I am extremely disappointed in the attitude of the ATSB and have been left with great doubts about their investigations. At this point, I would most certainly be advising my colleagues in the airlines that they cannot rely on the ATSB to report the facts nor give them a fair hearing if they are ever involved in an incident.

This is obviously not the reputation that the ATSB should be making for themselves.”

These are the last two paragraphs of a three paragraph reply to the pilot from the Minister:

While the Minister is undoubtedly correct, or rather, whomever wrote the letter for his signature was correct, he is also responsible for the integrity and competency of the ATSB in the discharge of its duties.

And that is what seems set to be destroyed by the evidence that will be put to the Senate committee hearings, raising in this writer’s mind the capacity of ministerial advisers to avoid departmental capture and identify the core failings of the ATSB in this matter.

Australian governments of any political persuasion seem to be ill advised when it comes to administrative failure in the departments reporting to them.

As previously reported here the ATSB report leaves out references to the equipment level installed on the small corporate jet involved and the training of the pilot to enable a legal diversion to Noumea while en route from Apia to its intended technical stop at Norfolk Island that are inherently in conflict with the requirements of company fueling policy for the jet’s operations as described in the final report.

Contrary to the published policy of CASA, the regulator, that the delivery of safety standards flow from the responsibilities and performances of the management of an airline or air operator, the ATSB report, and a televised interview with CASA’s director of safety, John McCormick, placed the complete blame for the accident on a pilot who had been rostered in a manner which meant he hadn’t even slept properly for two nights before taking off on the Apia-Norfolk Island leg of a flight that was supposed to end in Melbourne.

Together with the chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan, arguing on a 4 Corners program that the failure of Pel-Air to pass a CASA safety audit immediately after the accident was immaterial, the ATSB report, and  the apparent determination to publish it with  incomplete or untrue claims, leaves a big question hanging in the air. Why did the safety regulator and safety investigator go to such extraordinary lengths to avoid public disclosure of the state of operations at Pel-Air at the time of the crash?

This accident has inflicted serious damage on some of the six people who were onboard the Pel-Air jet.

Pel-Air has yet to be called to public account, either for its responsibilities to those it damaged, or for its inability to meet the regulated standards in its operations at the time of the incident.

If there is anything positive to say about this investigation, it is that it involved a small jet and six people, all of whom survived, rather than an accident involving a large airliner and the deaths of hundreds of people.

The starting point for avoiding air disasters in Australia is effective and uncompromised public administration of the laws and obligations that apply its airlines and air operators.

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