In another triumph of administrative efficiency, diligence and focus the Australian Transport Safety Bureau or ATSB, is poised, after almost six years, to recover the flight recorder from the Pel-Air Westwind corporate jet that was ditched in the sea near Norfolk Island on 18 November 2009.

The small jet had intended to refuel at Norfolk Island on its way from Apia to Melbourne as part of a medical charter flight, but had insufficient fuel on board to divert to an alternative airport when despite four missed approaches it was unable to land because of deteriorated weather conditions.

All six people on board were rescued by an island fishing boat and in the course of its original and since discredited investigation into the accident the ATSB decided not to recover the recording device, which is less sophisticated than those on larger jets, and of a design which in some quarters is said to be prone to medium term salt water corrosion.

The decision of the ATSB to blame everything on the pilot, and not recover the flight recorder led to a prolonged and continuing controversy.  A peer review of the ATSB’s conduct of the first inquiry by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada found (for those who managed to read all of it) that not all of the relevant information available to the ATSB may have been taken into account, and referenced internal frustrations and divisions within the ATSB investigation.

A review of that report can be read here.

The ATSB was subsequently ‘invited’ by the Deputy PM and minister responsible for aviation, Warren Truss, to revisit its report, which the agency after a delay removed from its web site pending its in effect, being redone.

Recovering the flight recorder is part of this process.

The dysfunctional manner in which the prolonged ATSB inquiry was conducted was laid bare in the peer review by the TSBC although this was only apparent on a full reading of that document rather than in relying on the summaries offered by the Department of Infrastructure which is responsible for both the safety investigator and the air safety regulator CASA.

The crux of the Pel-Air controversy is that the pilot was framed by the ATSB and CASA while the safety regulator improperly withheld an internal report which found gross failures on its part to correctly oversight or remedy what was found to have been serious safety deficiencies by the operator.

One of the critical matters raised by the controversy is the integrity of the ATSB in relation to the first Pel-Air accident investigation report, including its disinterest in that suppressed internal CASA review of its own performance.

That internal report, known as the Chambers Review, concluded that had CASA done its job the accident might not have happened.

The ATSB website has been updated on the recovery operation.

The image below from the ATSB shows what the wreckage looked like in March this year.

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