A short but closely argued public hearing at the Senate committee inquiry into the ATSB’s final report into the crash of a Pel-Air Westwind jet near Norfolk Island in 2009 has late today concluded with a former and experienced military helicopter pilot Senator David Fawcett urging the safety investigator’s chief commissioner Martin Dolan to re-open the inquiry.

Mr Dolan gave no audible response to the request on the video cast of the proceedings.

It was the first public hearing since 15 February at which Dolan learned that CASA, the air safety regulator, had withheld from the ATSB a confidential and highly critical internal review of its oversight of Pel-Air.

Called the Chambers Review, it found that had CASA done its job it is possible that the Careflight medical evacuation from Apia to Melbourne via an intended refuelling stop at Norfolk Island might not have been ditched into the ocean shortly before its fuel would have been exhausted after making four missed approaches in poor visibility in an unforecast and apparently uncommunicated deterioration in the weather.

The revelation that CASA had hidden from the ATSB a document that it was obliged to share with it in a crash investigation caused a sensation at the previous public hearing.

So did part of the explanation given for this deliberate breach of the air safety investigation rules by John McCormick, the director of safety at CASA, who said he withheld the Chambers Review to ‘avoid contaminating’ the ATSB’s independent inquiries.

At this afternoon’s late session Dolan insisted that there was nothing in the Chambers Review, now that he had reviewed it, which constituted new or significant evidence which would compel the ATSB to re-open its inquiry, which after evidence of pressure from CASA, had changed from one into a major safety issue to a final report where all the blame was attributed to the captain of the flight, who along with the other five people on board, was rescued by a Norfolk Island fishing boat.

Dolan’s dismissal of the withheld CASA Chambers Review was then argued back and forth between himself and Senator Fawcett for about an hour.

In dispute was the importance that the ATSB needed to give to systemic, regulatory and flight standards issues in the Pel-Air Westwind operation, as well as the findings of another less recently outed ‘secret’ and damning CASA audit of those operations at the time of the crash.

(To clarify there was a CASA special audit of Pel-Air, which was not given to the ATSB until July last year,  one and a half months before it issued a final report, and there was the Chambers Review, a CASA audit of itself, which was not known to the ATSB until it was shown to them on 15 February.)

Senator Fawcett drew Dolan’s attention, more than once, to this part of the ATSB’s final report which reads:

Regulatory context for the flight

The regulatory requirements affecting the flight were administered by CASA and established a number of risk controls for the operation that were promulgated in the Civil Aviation Regulations (CAR) and CAOs. Those controls related to the operator, the pilot in command (PIC) and the conduct of the flight. Surveillance was carried out by CASA of operators’ procedures and operations to ensure that such flights were conducted in accordance with those approvals and the relevant regulations and orders. 

Senator Fawcett said to Dolan that “almost every element of that has been disproven by the Chambers Review.”

In this exchange and in answer to earlier questions much of Dolan’s testimony is circuitous, and phrased in incomplete sentences and it will be interesting to see just how Hansard  records what was also at times barely audible on the video cast.

Senator Fawcett: “I would submit to you that [the Chambers Review] … clearly contains new and significant evidence that requires a re-opening of your inquiry.

“There are no further questions.”

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