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.
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.