Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, or the ATSB in Albury? PR photo 20th Century Fox

There are unresolved issues about the Virgin Australia ATR turbo-prop currently but not always hidden from view at Albury Airport following the discovery of significant damage to its airframe after it landed there on 25 February.

The aircraft was also involved in a serious turbulence incidence on the a flight between Canberra and Sydney on 20 February, and in an earlier post we have described how the ATSB linked that incident to the later Albury incident in a manner which no doubt by pure coincidence rendered it invisible to public scrutiny.

Among the questions awaiting answers is the extent to which, if at all, the public was exposed to risk between 20-25 February  by the aircraft continuing in service.

It is important to ask the question without prejudice. The ATSB could be completely mistaken in linking the two incidents and to have done so without any substantive reason whatsoever.

Virgin Australia had the ATR inspected after the turbulence incidence by a contractor, who may well have correctly concluded that the aircraft was fit to fly.

The pilot who thought he hit a bird on approach to Albury and made an external investigation of the turbo-prop to discovered what could be one of the more ruinous bird strikes in the history of such incidents in Australia could have been correct in his suspicions.

But whatever it was that the ATR hit,  it was definitely too damaged to continue to operate in the state in which it came to rest in Albury, where according to Virgin Australia:

 An ATR-72 is currently in Albury awaiting repairs, the aircraft is currently under ATSB control and the repairs will commence once the ATSB’s investigation is complete.

Virgin Australia also said “Virgin Australia pilots conduct a pre-flight inspection of their aircraft prior to every flight”. This tells us that whatever was bent on inspection in Albury after landing wasn’t bent before take off in Sydney more than an hour earlier and infers that either a prior condition suddenly manifested itself in the airframe or was caused by hitting what must have been a very large bird with its T-tail.

Finding out the truth is obviously a matter of considerable importance, and there is a sequence of events from the actions the pilots took on 20 February to respond to turbulence through to the post turbulence inspection and on to whatever event caused the airframe to deform on 25 February that all need to be fully understood.

The most important matter of all might be whether the airliner flew while in an unsafe condition between 20-25 February, and if it did, what steps need to be taken to prevent this happening again.

But the integrity of the post turbulence inspection process is obviously also critical to the above.

Answers to these questions are needed.

In a transparent and accountable air safety administrative process these issues would be explored NTSB style, at public hearings.  Documents would be produced and examined. Responsible people would publicly account for their actions. In Australia such matters are settled out of sight through a process of negotiation when it comes to the wording of the final report between the safety authorities and the commercial and professional parties to an inquiry, leading to an agreed final document, although the ATSB does have the power to publish its findings over the objections of other parties.

For the time being Virgin Australia isn’t proceeding with its originally intended expansion of its regional arm, which was Skywest Airlines of WA , which it purchased from Singaporean shareholders last year.

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