air crashes

Nov 12, 2015

ATSB now has only one set of black boxes lost at sea

The ATSB has now recovered the black boxes from the Pel-Air crash site that it should have promptly retrieved in 2009. It always knew where the Westwind jet was. All t

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The rear end of the sunk Pel-Air Westwind jet

The ATSB has now recovered the black boxes from the Pel-Air crash site that it should have promptly retrieved in 2009.

It always knew where the Westwind jet was. All that was lacking was competency and courage in the so called leadership of the relevant agencies, and the intelligent engagement of the responsible Ministers in successive Labor and Coalition governments.  A big ask where Ministers don’t have the guts, wits or courage to question the positions taken by the administrative branch.

Updated: 12 November 2015

During the afternoon of 11 November 2015, the rear section of VH-NGA, which contained the flight recorders, was lifted onto the deck of PMG Pride. Both the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were removed from the wreckage and placed into sealed containers in preparation for transportation to the ATSB’s technical facilities in Canberra. The part numbers and serial numbers of the recorders agree with the maintenance documentation for the aircraft. The recovery and storage of the recorders was witnessed by an officer of the Australian Federal Police. Examination of, and data recovery from, the recorders is expected to commence during the week of 16 November 2015.

This leaves the ATSB with the more difficult task of finding those flight recorders that might help solve the mystery of the disappearance of MH370, whether it found it and didn’t recognise it or not.

This might also require more than black boxes, through the recovery of smart phone and tablet chips from somewhere on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.



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29 thoughts on “ATSB now has only one set of black boxes lost at sea

  1. comet

    The ATSB said:

    “The part numbers and serial numbers of the recorders agree with the maintenance documentation for the aircraft.”

    This can be translated to mean that nobody stole the flight recorders and replaced them with proxies, which was a possibility after they were abandoned in shallow water for six years.

    The ATSB said:

    “The recovery and storage of the recorders was witnessed by an officer of the Australian Federal Police.”

    This means, you can trust us, we didn’t get up to any funny business because the police were watching.

    It’s a pity the media weren’t watching too, as I don’t think any media organisations got footage of the recovery.

    Which is a pity, as this is an historic occasion. It is the first time anywhere in the world that flight recorders have sat in shallow water in a known location, but a government crash investigation department waited six years to recover them.

    Even in distant dictatorships and untrustworthy regimes of history, such a go-slow has never been documented before.

  2. Seth Knoepler

    As a relatively recent and distant (California) reader of Ben’s blog I’ve been struggling to gain a basic grasp of the Pel-Air affair. On its face it sounds incomprehensibly bizarre that authorities in a technologically sophisticated First World country like Australia could decline to recover a pair of easily recoverable black boxes from a crash whose ultimate causes have never been beyond dispute. The best that I’ve been able to glean so far is that for some reason or combination of reasons, senior bureaucrats at the relevant agencies have been extremely reluctant to retrieve and interrogate those black boxes, and that despite a series of government changes since the Pel-Air crash (equally difficult for this non-Australian to comprehend) until now none of the politicians who, at least in theory, are the bureaucrats’ bosses have had “the guts, wits, or courage” to demand that the bureaucrats do what they’re being paid to do. Will that pass for a not-bad executive summary?

  3. Sam Jackson

    Choc Frog Comet. Beat me to it –“[but] a government crash investigation department waited six years to recover them” is not quite accurate – it took a Senate Inquiry to persuade the Minister to force the retrieval. Had it not been for those two events, make no mistake, the CVR would still be where it finished up. The truly abhorrent part is the ATSB had to be forced to effect recovery and to be dragged screaming to reopen the investigation. One can only wonder why.

  4. Ben Sandilands


    That’s a good start. I feel guilty knowing that perplexed readers abroad have been lured toward the edge of the black hole and been sucked toward despair and destruction.

  5. Sam Jackson

    Thanks Ben. Seth some, but not all of the sad, sorry saga may be explored @Aunty Pru.

    There is a lot to plough through, grab a coffee, find a quiet 10 minutes; the outline is there.

  6. comet

    The ATSB hasn’t made it easy for the media to cover this.

    They didn’t put out a press release to say when the flight recorders would be recovered.

    One day they announce they’re going to do it. The next day it’s done. No time for film crews to get out there.

    I know Four Corners has covered the story before, but this would still make an interesting subject for a 1-hour documentary, wouldn’t it? Not that the ATSB would cooperate.

  7. Aero Eng Aviator

    Because of the past record of the ATSB on this investigation, there needs to be an independent, technically competent, oversight of the storage of and data retrieval attempt from this CVR and FDR. Too easy to make a finding that the data has faded or was corrupted.

    It is unacceptable that the reputation of the ATSB has been so damaged that there is widespread lack of confidence in their objectivity and competence. Those responsible must as a matter of urgency, set about transparently repairing the ATSB so that public confidence in its independence and competence can be restored.

  8. Blackstone

    The May 2015 judgment from the NSW Supreme Court in the matter of Casey v Pel Air was also informative where in the opening paragraphs it was agreed that the crash was caused by the negligence of the crew – how could that conclusion be reached when the ATSB report had been withdrawn and investigation reopened?

  9. Giant Bird

    I wrote to Cineflix in Canada 5 years ago suggesting they do an Air Crash Investigations program on this crash outlining how it would make a good program. No reply.

  10. comet

    Air Crash Investigation usually concentrates on the accident itself. Here we have an investigator that cannot be trusted.

    People are expecting transparency, but the ATSB won’t do that willingly.

    The retrieval of the flight recorders must have taken a lot of planning. I understand there was a barge and a floating crane. These things don’t happen on the spur of the moment.

    Yet the ATSB announced it would retrieve the recorders only hours before it retrieved them. The only …only… explanation is to keep the media off its tail.

  11. Dr_Bill

    But why keep the media at bay? Why so many years elasped before the the bleeding obvious is done and the flight recorders recovered?

    Who is hiding what – was there something on that plane that was to be kept secret?

  12. Dr_Bill

    But why keep the media at bay? Why so many years elasped before the the bleeding obvious is done and the flight recorders recovered?

    Who is hiding what – was there something on that plane that was to be kept secret?

  13. Giant Bird

    I outlined a story which would make good viewing for them. However I think that they always get co-operation with accident investigation authority and in this case they would be unlikely to and they always like to finish on a note that flying has been made safer after the accident. In this case nothing has been to the rules and oversight to stop a repeat. I believe that is why they have not shown interest.

  14. Seth Knoepler

    Sam: Thanks very much for the auntypru link.
    Ben: In the U.S. a public servant at the state or local level will sometimes forget to vacuum up the trail of crumbs leading from the cookie jar back to his den. However, by the time a 21st century American politician or bureaucrat is ready for the Big Time he will almost always have learned how to make sure that the fingerprints which are found at the crime scene belong to someone else.

  15. Ben Sandilands

    Ghost, Joe and all,

    There were some outages and losses of comments (including by me) on Plane Talking today during the IT equivalent of a C check, if not a D check.

    Apologies to all. All of the news of the day has needless to say been in Paris, something deeply shocking and disturbing.

  16. comet

    The Pel-Air story is about government opaqueness.

    We don’t know – and can only guess – why the governent safety investigator didn’t want to get to the truth, or why two government ministers (Albanese and Truss) took no interest in forcing the ATSB into line.

    Unfortunately the atrocities in Paris will give governments around the world the cover they need to become more opaque and less open, while at the same time monitoring their citizens’ every move, and introducing harsher penalties for whistleblowers.

    A bad event gives governments the excuse to start other bad events (eg Iraq wars). Aviation will suffer, but even worse, the main casualty will be our democracy.

  17. Crocodile Chuck

    “…the main casualty will be our democracy”

    Comment of the Year.

  18. Seth Knoepler

    One interesting aspect from a U.S. perspective is that it sounds like neither of Australia’s two major political parties has tried to taint the other by linking it to the ATSB’s apparent cover-up. At least since the Watergate scandal 40 years ago, at various times both the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties have been willing to go to extraordinary lengths to allege that the other party is rife with corruption. A federal (i.e. national) air crash investigation which appears to have been “fixed” to arrive at a particular conclusion would be low hanging fruit for whichever party happened to be in opposition at the time.

  19. PAIN_P2

    Comet & Seth: Excellent contributions to the discussion and I 2nd Croc Chuck’s nomination for COTY – 1/2 dozen choc frogs 4 comet.

    With Ben’s indulgence comment’s are reproduced on AP here –

  20. joe airline pilot

    In an ideal world every accident would be investigated with the same level of detailed forensic analysis as the likes of MH17 or AF447. However, in the real world of budget and staffing constraints, a relatively straight forward accident in a non RPT flight whereby everyone survives and first hand witness accounts are available, the report will be rather more basic compared to a high capacity RPT accident where everybody is dead, the cause is unknown, and the most minute details of the cause must be known to potentially avert a common fault from causing widespread catastrophe. That of itself isn’t a conspiracy. In this case the raising of the CVR is of great curiosity value, but I can’t see any new “truth” coming out of another report.

    It reminds me of a remake of the Titanic movie, the ending will always be the same – the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. In the sorry saga of the Titanic there was a lack of regulatory oversight, but that didn’t cause the accident. What caused the accident was the Captains decision to drive a ship at full speed into an ice field.

  21. Ben Sandilands

    In this case the accident investigation spiraled out of control because the regulator and investigator were caught out through a lack of candor and disclosure.

    The regulator was found to have discovered that it failed to correctly oversight the operator, but then, contrary to the requirements of the law, withheld from the investigator an internal document outlining its failings (which had major implications for its broader responsibilities).

    The operator had no fuel policy for its Westwind operations, or no plan B was its chairman was to admit, if it found itself unable to land at a refueling point without sufficient reserve to make a missed approach and then fly to an alternative strip.

    The investigator failed to inquire into the regulatory requirements of the operation, and was indifferent to the situation that a non RVSM compliant jet was being required to fly through such an environment, where its optimum altitude would have the potential to put it into conflict with scheduled large capacity movements.

    There was an important question as to what met data had been passed on to the flight by Auckland control as the jet reached and then passed its point of no return in relation to Norfolk Island. A question for which the cockpit voice recorder was critical in answering, but which the investigator seemed incredibly keen not have retrieved, preferring instead to pursue the objective of blaming the pilot for everything.

    These factors began to feed the storm of disquiet about the integrity of the investigation and the conduct of the regulator. The peer review by the TSBC uncovered evidence of internal divisions in the ATSB over the direction of the much delayed investigation. Perceptions of unfairness and victimisation naturally began to gain momentum.

    After the final and now withdrawn report by the ATSB was issued, it was found to have bungled the issue of what met data the pilot had actually received about conditions at Norfolk Island earlier in the return medical evacuation mission as well.

    All of these components caused much mistrust and anger in the sector.

    What would you do if confronted in your country by prima facie evidence of a lack of integrity and a case for victimisation by authority? I would think, in the US context, that these matters would be of serious concern.

    It’s one thing for a captain of a ship to disregard principles of navigation or even common sense. It’s another for government bodies, anywhere, to lie, conspire and persecute, and those concerns, rightly or wrongly, are centre stage in the Pel-Air saga.

  22. joe airline pilot

    Some good points Ben and I don’t wish to defend any organisation nor argue report dot points.
    That said, I’m familiar with remote island and ems flying and I find some of the decision making processes (or lack thereof) that led to continuing on to a remote island at night in marginal weather conditions in a reduced fuel state, quite strange. (And leaving passengers and an unconscious crew member for dead in order to be first out of a sinking vessel is incomprehensible.) I look forward to seeing the next report, but I suspect that many of the salient points will remain the same. (Or may even reflect worse apron the crew). Time will tell.

  23. Sam Jackson

    But Joe, Shirley: the point is the pilot has admitted and paid (dearly) for his publically acknowledged errors. Did he make some?– damn straight, as any professional will tell you. But that is beside the point Joe, isn’t it? A Senate inquiry, supported by an independent review declared that both ATSB and CASA were – to put it kindly – remiss and not quite ‘open’. After the fact that James made and admitted, whether due fatigue, lack of training or ingrained culture several 20/20 hindsight mistakes is irrelevant. The behaviour of the Regulator and it’s influence on the ‘investigator’ reveals a deeper, darker world.

    You know; I am always intrigued by folk publish claimed ‘expertise’ on a Blog – I mean, why bother? I am always curious about an alleged ‘pilot’; who will persist in an attempt to distract attention from the real issues and to denigrate a fellow aviator, claiming only ‘pilot error’ as the main cause. Did Dom make errors? – an admitted given. But what happened afterwards was pure travesty. That’s why there was a Senate inquiry, and the Forsyth report and a TSBC peer review. Were they investigating ‘pilot error’? NO they were not. Or, did I perhaps miss that bit?

    Much like the Chambers report – added to those three ‘other’ reports presents a commentary on the easily determined, now revealed flaws within the ‘safety watchdogs’. Except, Chambers was never (not ever) meant to be published. The Chambers report was, and remains a self serving, damning attack on opposition CASA officers, as means of covert removal of those who dared to disagree, simply to raise the Chambers kudos against his very own crew. Read it – then come back with an answer which does nor beggar belief; or, confront all sworn testimony. The Chambers report may be rightfully deemed – unfortunate; for whom, is yet to be determined.

    Meanwhile, if you can; provide me the supporting numbers, for the James worst case OEI (Dep) PNR from the FOB on departure. Then, perhaps I will acknowledge you may even be a pilot with the experience you claim. Tell me how you, as an airline pilot would have done the journey. Don’t ask me to do it – I did mine for the Senators – in camera – on invitation; did you?

  24. Dan Dair

    “The ATSB said:

    “The part numbers and serial numbers of the recorders agree with the maintenance documentation for the aircraft.”

    This can be translated to mean that nobody stole the flight recorders and replaced them with proxies, which was a possibility after they were abandoned in shallow water for six years”

    What it doesn’t discount is that the ATSB quietly took them, unsealed them, damaged the recording material beyond recovery, re-sealed them & quietly replaced them where they were originally.
    Then left them there a couple more years so that the ‘police witness’ would witness that they looked like they’d been in the water for quite some time.?

    Pure speculation/conspiracy-theory on my part, of course,
    but given all that’s happened so far, not really beyond the realms of plausibility.?

  25. Dan Dair

    Sam Jackson,
    I agree with you.!

    The captain admitted making mistakes,
    If his decision to proceed on to Norfolk Island was ACTUALLY based upon incorrect information supplied to him by ATC, it isn’t his fault he ended up in the predicament he did.

    Perhaps he shouldn’t have put himself in that position, but much of the decision-making that led up to the crash was based around the culture within the ‘airline’ & what was perceived as ‘normal’.?

    Those failings are what the ATSB should have reported on & taken steps to enforce reform of Pel-Air’s procedures.

    Instead, they took the ‘easy-option’ & blamed the pilot, without actually having any evidence to refute his claims of ATC failings.?

  26. Sam Jackson

    Silence – not surprising, not really. The real benefit from the JAP postings is that it gives us an opportunity to dig up all the, rotting, stinking evidence against the ATSB and CASA out into the spotlight – once again. I hope ‘Joe’ keeps posting – everyday; lots of venal, spiteful muck which we can pick up and throw right back, all the while keeping CASA firmly in the spotlights. It’s called ‘lamping’, a technique used for clearing out vermin, such as ‘Wabbits’.

    The good thing in posting the way JAP does is it accomplishes little, except to yet again, highlight regulator transgression. CASA, willingly, went down the persecution line in an attempt to divert attention from the bloody disgraceful mess Pel-Air had become – with their full, signed approval. Both Senate Inquiry and Forsyth ASRR dragged that all that out; and, graciously offered remedy. Remedy which CASA have since buried and ignored, despite both Minister and Board publically stated insistence on compliance.

    The McComic legacy lives on, those who could not, or would not be browbeaten into submission and had options left the party. Those named by Chambers as the ones who allowed the Pel-Air pantomime to continue understood the implications of that report; and, having no other options, made Kouto, stayed and followed the party dictated line.

    DJ was hung, drawn, quartered; and, after paying the penalty, the administrative actions and the Chinese whispers started, pure malice. None of this improved risk mitigation one iota. The speed at which the Pel-Air dog and pony show got back into business still beggars belief.

    At every turn during the Senate inquiry it became clearer where the real, underpinning cause of the accident lay – DJ the last line of defence became, on McComics say so, a handy scapegoat, which is bad enough – considering. But to now become a piñata for those who take pleasure in waiting till the man is down and rushing to put the boot in, is despicable, cowardly and indicative of a sick mind.

    Cheers Joe, keep it coming

  27. joe airline pilot

    I haven’t written anything venal or spiteful. I have no emotion at all about this case. I’m happy for the evidence to speak for itself whatever that may be and as such I look forward to seeing the next report and hope that the industry can learn something from this accident. Sam Jackson, I honestly hope that you might one day find a happy place.

  28. Rod Lovell

    Nothing new. In my accident (VH-EDC) they RELUCTANTLY recovered the crucial starboard engine after two months underwater.

  29. Rod Lovell

    Just jumping on the bandwagon. From what I’ve experienced, the investigation into my accident by (the then) CAA and BASI was disgraceful.

    I said about 20 years ago….

    “Overall, I take great exception to the innuendo in the BASI report regarding my lack of
    professionalism. Throughout my flying career I have always strived to maintain a highly
    professional attitude and this flight was no exception. Some highly experienced and respected DC-3 pilots attest to my abilities in handling these and other aircraft.
    The report’s coverage of the circumstances of the ditching are inaccurate, superficial and in certain areas, untrue. It is obvious that the flight operations aspects of the report were conducted without consultation with experienced and impartial DC-3 specialists. The fact that BASI did not carry out flight tests on a DC-3 of similar airframe and engine hours is but one indication of the investigation’s lack of objectivity.”

    I seriously doubt whether anything in “fort fumble” or “the sheltered workshop” will ever change.

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