On 2 October 2012 near Darwin airport military air traffic controllers screwed up the safe separation of an arriving Qantaslink 717 and a departing Qantas 737 with a combined passenger capacity of about 283 seats because of a case of mistaken identity involving an RAAF C-130 which wasn’t even flying near the airport.

The C-130’s transponder code had also been inadvertently applied to the 717 flight by the civilian air traffic  control system, but had been changed to a new code before it entered Darwin’s approach and departure airspace under defence control.

Except that Darwin military control had deleted the change message unread, leaving the officers handling the arrival in a state of momentary confusion as to who was doing what when suddenly nothing they were hearing or seeing at their desk matched their assumptions or expectations.

In its summary of this report the ATSB describes this inexplicable unprofessionalism or stupidity as “local contextual factors and confirmation bias”. The ATSB must think the Minister is an idiot.  (See page 10 of the full report and ask yourself, if Darwin control can’t even be bothered to read AirServices messages how bleeding dangerous are these fools).


The labels in this ATSB image and related text prove it has a sense of the ridiculous

The ATSB final report into this incident is highly technical and would probably put lay readers into a coma. Use the download button for the full report, don’t rely on the summary.

It needs one of those gripping YouTube videos favoured by America’s safety investigator the NTSB to explain with moving pictures the unsafe elements of this particular incident and highlight the unsatisfactory state of affairs in which our military controllers are entrusted with the lives of hundreds of airline passengers where they use defence airspace .

While the incoming 717 crossed directly above the outgoing 737 with 900 feet to spare, infringing the safe separation distance by ‘only’ 100 feet, it is the stuff up in Darwin control that is of concern.

There has never been an incident exactly like this one, according to the ATSB report, but there is a long history of military incompetency in handling civilian aircraft movements in defence controlled airspace particularly at the shared facilities at Darwin and Newcastle airports.

And nothing, apart from the issuing of anodyne media releases by successive transport ministers, has even been done about this.

There seems to a death wish of disastrous proportions in the Department of Defence in that it continues to assert its professionalism and competency in handling passenger jets, and resist all efforts to allow civilian controllers to control civilian jets at these airports, until one day there is a terrible tragedy, because bugger all has even been done to fix the problem.

It is astonishing to read in this report that the Australian Defence Air Traffic System and the much larger civilian system have “only limited communication between them.”

The ATSB also expresses dissatisfaction with some of the responses it received from Defence.

The ATSB is not satisfied that the DoD has adequately addressed the safety issues regarding the provision of refresher training to air traffic controllers for the scanning of green radar returns and in compromised separation recovery requirements and techniques. As a result, the ATSB has made formal recommendations to the DoD to take further safety action on these issues.

Going on past performances, Defence will continue to ignore the ATSB in that nothing material will be done to end the risk that the actions of its controllers pose to the life and limb of civilian airliner passengers, and will resist  as fiercely as it has in the past any suggestion that its controllers cease to exercise any control over civil movements.

However the chairmanship of AirServices Australia has passed to Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Retired) while its CEO is Margaret Staib, who also has a distinguished previous career in defence.

It may well be that they will recognise that this situation at shared military/civil airports in manifestly dangerous and untenable, and take decisive action to eliminate these risks.

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