Next Monday is the fourth anniversary of the ditching of a Pel-Air ambulance flight into the sea off Norfolk Island in the middle of the night when it was unable to land for a refueling stop on its way from Apia to Melbourne.
Since then there have been no regulatory changes made to prevent such an accident from occurring again, even though the existing and unchanged regulations have been clearly identified as deeply flawed.
Four years of abject failure on the part of CASA to make even the most fundamental and sensible rule changes! There has been some talk, but no action.
There were six people on board the 18 November 2009 Pel-Air flight, who all miraculously escaped from the small Westwind corporate jet and were rescued by a fishing boat after a resident of the island noticed the faint glimmer of a torch light in the darkness.
Next Monday is also coincidentally the day set aside for Senate Estimates hearings during which CASA, the air safety regulator and the ATSB, the supposedly ‘independent’ air safety investigator, may well be called to account for their respective testimonies to the all party Senate committee that inquired not into the crash, but the report into that accident produced by the ATSB.
That inquiry was remarkable, and indeed embarrassing for the media, in that the committee was able to obtain damning documentary evidence that contrary to the written intent of relevant legislation, CASA withheld from the ATSB an internal review paper which showed that had CASA carried out its duties of oversight of Pel-Air, the operator of the jet, the accident may have been prevented.
That document, the so called Chambers review, was commissioned by CASA’s director of aviation safety, John McCormick, and on any careful reading of its contents, raises very real concerns as to the competency of this organization to discharge the onerous duty of regulating air safety to the highest level of international standards.
Mr McCormick admitted suppressing the document in his testimony before the committee and apologized for his actions.
However the chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan, dismissed the importance of the suppressed document in reaching the conclusions that it published, that the entire blame for the accident was due to the failure of the pilot of the flight Dominic James to fully fuel the jet at Apia.
In its report into Air Accident Investigations the committee devoted an entire chapter to its reasons for not having confidence in the testimony provided to it by Mr Dolan, which was a rare if not unprecedented rejection by a Senate committee in Australia of the contribution to an inquiry by a senior Commonwealth public servant.
In his testimony Mr McCormick also made untrue comments about expert evidence from a number of witnesses, and failed to retract or apologise for those untrue statements, despite being challenged over their veracity by Senator David Fawcett (Liberal SA), who was to later make his concerns about the conduct and capabilities of CASA and the ATSB clear in an address to the Senate.
The report into the Pel-Air crash issued by the ATSB made Australia look ridiculous and compromised in respect of air safety in that it made no safety recommendations (despite all the safety equipment on the jet failing to work as intended in the crash) and failed to recover a flight data recorder which would show whether or not the pilot received proper warning of deteriorating weather conditions at Norfolk Island as the jet drew nearer, eventually flying past the last point at which it could have diverted to airports in Fiji or Noumea.
The ATSB report ignored material operational inadequacies in the Westwind which made its use seriously problematical on the Apia-Norfolk Island leg. It was to be blunt, a stich-up which sought to deflect blame from the regulatory failures of oversight of Pel-Air by CASA, and it failed to address the public interest safety related learnings from the crash.
The report is a national embarrassment, and needs to be withdraw and done professionally without an element of cover up between safety agencies.
The former Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, failed to respond to the recommendations of the Senate inquiry into the Pel-Air accident report delivered by the ATSB but it is expected that his replacement, Deputy PM and Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss will do so shortly, perhaps prior to the Estimates hearings on Monday.
Mr Truss yesterday also provided more detail on the Abbott Government’s promised independent review of air safety regulation in Australia, which made reference to the Pel-Air, CASA and ATSB issues as raised by the Senate in its background material.
ATSB supplied image of the Pel-Air wreckage below, with its deliberately unrecovered black box