A Commons photo of a Virgin Australia ATR72

There are some peculiar matters to note about the misfortunes of a 68 passenger Virgin Australia region ATR72 turbo-prop in February.

On 20 February the aircraft was involved in a turbulence incident on a flight from Canberra to Sydney which was sufficiently severe to leave a flight attendant with a broken leg.

The ATSB has launched an investigation.

The aircraft was given a post turbulence inspection by an aero-engineering service on behalf of  Virgin Australia which found no damage and cleared the aircraft to continue in service.

(Without prejudice to anyone, Virgin Australia may, like any airline, outsource maintenance and repair, but it cannot outsource its obligations nor responsibility for any outcomes for the work it sends to others.)

On 25 February the same aircraft was alleged by the pilots flying it to Albury to have experienced a bird strike.

A post landing inspection discovered damage to the tail of the aircraft, and it has remained on the ground since then, inside a hangar.

Virgin Australia says the aircraft has not been released by the ATSB for repairs.

Yet the ATSB doesn’t list an investigation of the claimed bird strike. Instead this is what the ATSB says in relation to the Albury grounding.

During a post flight inspection substantial damage to the aircraft’s tail assembly was detected. The investigation is continuing.

What investigation? The number quoted is the same as that for the Canberra leg breaker on 20 February. But you will only find that reference if  you go to the second last entry on page 16 of 18 at the above link.

Could it be that the ATSB knows how to bury potentially embarrassing references to incidents involving high profile airlines, or is at the very least, delinquent in its duties to transparently communicate with the public interest it is supposed to act for?

Or put another way, does it have a clue as to the public interest at all, in a supposedly modern western democracy?

Note that the ATSB makes no reference to a bird strike.  Unless this was a mature pelican from the Hume Weir or Lake Eildon, frozen into the form of a feather covered boulder after being sucked up to a high altitude in a chance encounter with a tornado, it is surpassingly difficult to imagine it doing so much damage to a modern airliner’s tail, rather than its front, that it is going to be held for ATSB inspection for perhaps as long as it takes the agency to write its final report, which was originally claimed to be finished by May.

The fact that the ATSB expects to complete this report by May, this 2014 May, is in itself almost unbelievable considering the time it usually takes to finalise reports.

And it’s a double report, an undisclosed double report into the Canberra-Sydney leg breaker and the Albury tail breaker.

Yet despite the speed with which the hidden double header is being thoroughly investigated the ATSB can’t even release the aircraft for repairs, seven weeks after the incident and only a matter of weeks before it is supposed to have been read in final draft form by the parties and then published.

So if it is conducting tests or whatever on the ATR72, how can the report be almost completed?

It beggars belief that Virgin Australia, or any Australian airline, would allow a plane of size to be kept out of the skies for such an extraordinary period of time. If this was a Virgin Australia 737 the airline would have a senior executive camped on the ATSB’s doorstep every day, demanding that it give it back its plane.

Virgin Australia says the aircraft is awaiting release, and then repairs. But its been in a hangar with nothing happening so far as anyone can tell for weeks.

There is no evidence of teams of ATSB inspectors poring over every rivet and no doubt searching for embedded pelican feathers every day in their desire to solve this mystery and give the plane back to Virgin Australia before they actually release the report.  Is there?

Just what-the-hell is really going on?

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