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air safety

Sep 8, 2016

How a glider and a regional turbo-prop nearly hit over Orange

Gliders and airliners keep just missing each other at country airports and the ATSB spells out the risks in this close call earlier in the year

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

A slender not always easy to see Glaser Dirks DG800 series glider
A slender not always easy to see Glaser Dirks DG800 glider

To put it in tabloid terms, as many as 40 people came close to death in a near miss between a glider and a REX turbo-prop airliner near Orange in NSW in February this year.

However, the final ATSB report into this alarming incident, published today, makes it crystal clear that glider-passenger aircraft ‘proximity’ occurrences need even more work, and faster regulatory outcomes if their tabloid potential doesn’t end up in a bloody mess and dozens of ruined lives.

To summarise rather severely, the REX flight from Orange to Sydney (in a SAAB 340 which it configures with between 33-36 seats) had just begun its climb away from the regional airport when it took action to avoid a cumulus cloud which inadvertently took it between two Glaser-Dirks gliders crossing its departure track at close to a right angle.

The REX captain saw one of the gliders, took evasive action, and missed it, perhaps by as little as 100 metres, or the blink of an eye to revert to tabloid mode for a moment.

A REX SAAB 340 similar to the one involved in this near miss
A REX SAAB 340 like the one involved in this near miss

The ATSB report, which is both notably detailed, and prompt, in having been finalised in less than seven months, dissects the different glider and airliner pilot descriptions of what followed, as well as the various communications protocol challenges, which while technical in detail, are a work in progress between the gliding and airline fraternities.

Make that, hopefully, a more urgent work in progress. No fault is found, nor should have been. Good people are working on the problem. They just need to fix it faster than the next roll of the sky dice.

The ATSB references an unacceptable number of glider-airliner proximity events in Australia in recent times, and notes that they are on the rise. It points out that had the REX turbo-prop been on descent through cloud rather than climbing when it arrived on the scene, it might not have seen the nearest glider.  Nor would its TCAS collision avoidance equipment have detected the gliders in its path and issued a resolution advisory.

This report is a fast and definitive response to an air safety problem that is getting worse. Will it have the intended effect? That’s the terrible question that hangs over its release.

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5 comments

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5 thoughts on “How a glider and a regional turbo-prop nearly hit over Orange

  1. comet

    Australia seems to have a lot of near misses, of all types.

  2. Dan Dair

    How heavy would a TCAS unit be which solely generated a signal.? (if such a thing exists or could be made cheaply.?)

    Gliders do not have the same operational characteristics as powered aircraft, so it would be up to the powered aircraft to take evasive action.
    Consequently, if there was a lightweight unit which could inform a commercial aircraft’s TCAS system that there were other aircraft in the vicinity it could offer a solution to the pilot to avoid potential danger.?
    .
    .
    As a non-technical solution, why are gliders flying across the departure (or arrival) track of an airport anyway.?
    I would have thought (obviously erroneously) that these zones would be off-limits to any aircraft (including gliders), (I’d include the deliberate actions of balloons too, though they are a lot easier to see.!!)), unless they were actually utilising the route for landing at or departing from that airport.?

  3. Drew McKinnie

    Hiya Ben. A few comments, as a glider and GA pilot:
    I know that the pilots involved, GFA and Rex Airlines all cooperated with ATSB in investigating the Airprox and developing the subject report. GFA is encouraging an open reporting culture. GFA, Bathurst Soaring Club and Rex Airlines have collaborated on improving procedures to reduce the risks of unalerted encounters. GFA safety seminars and Gliding Australia have been used for broader pilot education on alerted see-and-avoid and airspace awareness. This event occurred in uncontrolled, class G airspace.
    The report states that the glider pilots saw the Rex aircraft climbing towards them. The two glider pilots used a gliding safety frequency – they saw the airliner would pass clear.
    Most glider pilots routinely use a system called FLARM to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions or close encounters. The highest collision risk for gliders, in terms of Probability, is glider to glider. FLARM partially mitigates that risk. So does radio. FLARM is not visible to ADS-B… Your headline latches onto Risk Consequence. No pilot wants this to happen.
    Yes, there are a lot of other sporting aviation aircraft out there, powered and unpowered, operating VFR, much of it in Class G airspace. I was reminded of this on a recent VFR flight in a GA aircraft near Blayney, on cruise descent for YBTH, when a fast RAAus aircraft crossed my path, outside the CTAF zone, not on YBTH frequency. It was safe, not an Airprox, but a good reminder. We sporting aviators are all interested in better safety outcomes.
    The REAL story, Ben, is that GFA and other sporting aviation groups, are seeking through ASTRA to have CASA approve changes in standards which would permit “light” low cost, low weight, low power demand ADS-B units to be approved for use by VFR sporting aircraft. I understand a good case has been made to CASA. A new VFR ADS-B system that does not require high cost, TSO compliant GNSS technology, would be a welcome improvement. Many GFA pilots are early adopters of technology, and are certainly attuned to risk reduction.
    No matter what systems are used, no matter what procedures are adopted, no matter whether VFR or IFR, Airprox risks will still exist. Attention to lookout has primacy, and alerted see-and-avoid is superior to unalerted lookout. I therefore look forward to sensible decisions by CASA on VFR ADS-B standards and equipment options, to improve our alerting systems.

    1. Dan Dair

      Drew McKinnie,
      I will not take issue with anything you’ve said as you appear to be far more knowledgeable that I on these matters.

      I will ask a question though;
      Is it appropriate for the departure (or arrival) air corridor for any commercial airfield to be category D / uncontrolled airspace.?
      I would have thought, perhaps incorrectly, that these areas would be clearly defined & access excluded for all other aircraft.?

      I wouldn’t have thought creating a suitable cone or wedge of ‘controlled’ airspace would have significantly impinged upon hobby or pleasure flyers.?

  4. Dan Dair

    And another thing……
    “The ATSB report, which is both notably detailed, and prompt, in having been finalised in less than seven months”

    How is it that the ATSB can deal with this quite complicated issue in seven months, (albeit, they’re commencing a ‘work-in-progress’ to actually resolve the overall issue)
    yet the seemingly comparatively simple ‘push-back’ incident between VA & JQ aircraft took a couple of years to report
    & when they did,
    I could have done it better…..!!!!!!!!!