It isn’t known when the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s review of the how the ATSB handled its botched accident investigation into the 2009 Pel-Air crash will be released, but some sort of struggle to prevent it being made public has been going on behind the scenes for months.
That crash, which seriously injured one of the six people on board, and caused loss and damage to two others, might seem inconsequential, but it has made two ministers look foolish and compromised Australia’s reputation for being fair and diligent in air crash investigations.
The accident, in November 2009, occurred when an air ambulance charter being operated by Pel-Air using a Westwind corporate jet, was ditched in the sea in the middle of the night near Norfolk Island after bad weather prevented it landing on a refueling stop between Apia and Melbourne.
Widespread industry concerns about the integrity of the safety regulator CASA and the supposedly independent safety investigator the ATSB arose after the latter eventually released in 2012 a final report into the crash that was so deficient in its fundamentals that the Australian Senate held an investigation into the processes engaged in by the ATSB is producing its report.
The Senate all party committee was unanimous in its criticism of both bodies but all of its substantive recommendations for strong corrective action were in effect ruled out by the new minister responsible for aviation, Deputy PM Warren Truss, when he tabled the much delayed government response to the committee’s findings.
The committee’s report and the new government’s response, can be found on this page.
Prior to the change of government a year ago the ATSB commissioned the Canadian Transport Safety Board to review its procedures in relation to the Pel-Air inquiry.
Subsequent to the election of the Abbott government Mr Truss fulfilled an election promise to hold a review of Australian air safety regulations chaired by an experienced and much respected industry professional David Forsyth.
In that Forsyth review, handed to the government on 30 May this year, the panel said “the failings of the Pel-Air investigation damaged the perception that the ATSB’s Stewardship of its responsibilities is adequate.”
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has been heavily criticised in Australia for its report into the 2009 ditching of a Pel-Air Westwind off Norfolk Island.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is completing a review of the ATSB and will report shortly. The Panel considers that the Pel-Air report was an aberration, and not typical of the high standard that the ATSB usually attains.
The Panel recognizes that the ATSB is putting measures in place to prevent a reoccurence.
Following this Plane Talking asked the Canadian TSB when it would publish its findings and was told that all inquiries should be made to the ATSB.
When the Minister’s office was asked what was going on it replied, and has since insisted on several occasions, that the TSB report would be published by the TSB, not the ATSB.
However in August the email trail has the TSB referring to its report in the past tense, suggesting that the report has been completed, but had inexplicably failed to appear, either in Canada or Australia.
Plane Talking understands that the findings of the TSB report have been resisted in the administrative branch of government while the executive, the Minister’s office, insists that it will come out.
There is a clear inference that it might have been suggested to the TSB that its independent review might have been ‘too independent’. But that would imply that in same way pressure from within Australia is attempting to influence or modify the Canadian TSB findings in its draft report and that the Canadians have a more pure and innocent definition of independent, in that, it means they will independently arrive at their conclusions, and that’s that.
Earlier this year the Minister’s office was asked if it would order the re-opening of the Pel-Air inquiry, including reversing the ATSB’s refusal to retrieve the flight data recorder from comparatively shallow waters, to determine, among other things, what weather data was actually conveyed to the pilot before he continued on to the intended landing at Norfolk Island after passing the point of no return in terms of diverting to either Fiji or Noumea.
The reply was that the department had advised there was nothing to be gained from a further inquiry, which is to be blunt, insulting rubbish. Australia has left in place a manifestly deficient accident report which doesn’t even deal with the failure of the on board safety equipment during the first such ditching of this type of jet.
It is difficult to imagine an experienced minister leaving advice on such an important matter to the same department responsible for both CASA and the ATSB, which according to evidence before the Senate committee, conspired to hide information that the regulator had failed to carry out its duties in relation to oversight of the flawed Pel-Air Westwind operation.
Much depends on candid and fearless disclosure of the truth about the botched Pel-Air inquiry. For the Minister, for his department, for CASA, the ATSB, and the TSB of Canada, and not least, for those injured and damaged by this avoidable accident.