A Virgin Australia 777-300ER at LAX: Wikipedia Commons

The ATSB has somewhat tersely announced an investigation of an apparent autopilot failure in a Virgin Australia 777 ‘near’ Melbourne Airport last Thursday 15 August.

It says that “during the approach, the autopilot commanded a high rate of descent. The crew disconnected the autopilot and manually continued the approach.”

On the face of it, this was a matter of pilot vigilence paying off.  Airliners have been crashed by pilots that take too long to recognise automation failures or anomalies, and all credit to the Virgin Australia crew. They did what they are trained to do, which is to always be situationally aware of what is going on in an airliner, and to intervene when anything isn’t right, which is undoubtedly vital when close to the ground.

But for all its brevity, the ATSB says it will take until January next year to make its final report. This is a 361 seat Australian airliner of a type widely used world wide.  The ATSB is required to post a preliminary report no later than 15 September.

It should by then have cleared up what components in the 777’s systems caused this failure, and determined if other factors might have been in play.

That is what the world expects of a safety investigator.

An important issue for an incoming responsible minister after the 7 September election is not just correcting the appalling management of the ATSB as abundantly documented by the Senate committee inquiry into the ATSB’s disgraceful and flawed report into the Pel-Air crash, but its resourcing.

In a statement the airline says:

Virgin Australia is assisting the Air Transport Safety Bureau with an investigation of an international flight at Melbourne International Airport on Thursday 15 August.  The aircraft landed without incident after the crew disengaged the autopilot and manually flew the aircraft.  There was no danger to the aircraft or guests at any time.

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