The head on lights of one Qantas 737 from inside another in Melbourne ATC stuff up
The head on lights of one Qantas 737 from inside another in Melbourne ATC stuff up

*Updated with YouTube link ABC News, and possibly the commercial networks, will tonight air an inflight passenger video of a set of near collisions involving two Qantas 737s and an Emirates 777 at Melbourne Airport last July.

The Qantas jets were both about to land, while the Emirates wide body was making its take off roll for Singapore.

The TV news programs may also show portions of a flight tracking video showing one of the Qantas jets being diverted to fly over the airport’s terminal area 600 feet below the safe minimum altitude by an air traffic controller to avoid the imminent risk of colliding with the other Qantas jet.

At one point in the video taken inside one of the Qantas 737s the lights on the oncoming other Qantas jet flare into head on visibility before it they are obscured by the wing of the climbing jet.

This is not what is expected inside an Australian domestic airliner approaching the country’s second largest airport.

However that collision risk had arisen because the tower had coordinated the movements of the three jets in what appears to have been unprofessional and negligent manner causing a hasty decision to direct one of the Qantas jets to abandon its approach and climb away from the airport to avoid the risk of colliding with the Emirates jet where its position on the runway being used for the takeoff would meet the landing Qantas jet on the other runway at the point where the runways intersected.

In sequence, the tower was confronted with a situation of its own making where a Qantas 737 could have flown into an Emirates 777, followed by a double go-around panic in which the two Qantas 737s were then put at risk of hitting each other.

The tower’s action in telling the Qantas jet descending toward the runway being used by the departing Emirates jet to go around then put it at risk of running into the Qantas jet that had previously initiated a go around to avoid a collision at the intersection of the two runways.

This was a clusterf*ck of the first order, the dangers of which only become apparent when the video taken inside the cabin of one of the Qantas jets, and another showing the flight tracked paths of the three jets are viewed with the appropriate explanatory narrative.

Which of course, might or might not fit in with the news values of the commercial networks, or the attention span of their audiences.

The information about this incident was pulled together by independent SA Senator, Nick Xenophon following the discovery of the passenger video and embargoed until 5 pm eastern daylight time today, allowing ample time for the complexity, and seriousness of the incident to be considered by the news networks.

Senator Xenophon has been pursuing the safety risks of Melbourne’s simultaneous use of intersecting runways for some time, specifically the procedure called LAHSO or land and hold short operations.

LAHSO has been both much criticised, and defended by, a range of safety studies for many years, notably in Canada and the US, where it is used at some airports.

Senator Xenophon has criticised the private owners of Melbourne Airport for clinging to LAHSO as a way of avoiding the costs of constructing a parallel runway which would prevent such conflicts arising.

The lack of judgment exercised by tower control on that night is astonishing and alarming. The tower was manned by an on-the-job trainer and a trainee controller. As the ATSB noted in its don’t scare anyone with the blunt truth interim report, there were two other controllers performing other functions in the tower that night.

In its interim report the ATSB says the jets involved in the incident didn’t infringe safe separation distances.  However given the procedural breakdown it confirms in that preliminary document, this is less relevant than it might seem.

What doesn’t get highlighted by the interim report is the situation where the safe minimum altitude for aircraft to fly over the airport’s passenger terminal area is 2000 feet, but the Qantas 737 that had been about to land behind the departing 777 received urgent advice to divert across the terminal area, crossing it at the unsafe and illegally low altitude of 1400 feet, while it was under increased power to climb away for its go around.

This breaking of this safe minimum altitude rule underlines the lack of preparedness, judgment and exercise of professional control that occurred in the Melbourne tower that night.

It put the lives of large numbers of travellers at risk in the air, and it broke a rule intended to reduce the risk of an airliner that might for example, experience a sudden loss of power or control, and crash into a terminal.

This last Australia Day there was another incident at Melbourne Airport in which a traffic helicopter at nearby Essendon Airport and two other jets using the larger airport infringed safe separation rules in what the ATSB now says involved a failure of communications in relation to a sudden change of runway procedures.

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