The wreckage of the Pel-Air jet which the ATSB originally refused to recover
The wreckage of the Pel-Air jet which the ATSB originally refused to recover

The ATSB has updated the status of its re-opened inquiry into the Pel-Air ditching of an air ambulance flight near Norfolk Island almost seven years ago.

It says it is now “in a position to finalise a draft report which is expected to be released to directly involved parties by the end of the year.  Subject to comments made during the draft report review process, the final report should be released publicly in the first part of 2017.”

This whole sorry saga has become as much about the honesty and diligence of Australia’s air safety investigator, the ATSB, as well as its safety regulator CASA as it has about a plane crash.

In December 2014 the ATSB was directed to withdraw and re-open its original and much criticised report into the ditching following some very serious shortcomings that were identified by an independent peer review by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

It took a Senate inquiry to establish that the original ATSB inquiry ignored a suppressed internal CASA report that found the accident could have been avoided had the safety regulator done its job in relation to the oversight of Pel-Air’s operations of the small Westwind corporate jet that it used for medical flights.

The ditched Pel-Air flight involved a medical transfer from Apia to Melbourne which found itself unable to land in very poor weather conditions for its intended refueling stop at Norfolk Island with six people on board. The jet had insufficient fuel on board to to divert to an alternative airport. It was ditched in the sea adjacent to the island before its fuel would have run out and deprived the pilots of full control of the Westwind.

The evidence given by the then chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan, to a Senate committee inquiring into its conduct of the original safety investigation was severely criticised in its report.

The Senate disclosures led to widespread concerns in the aviation industry that two government agencies, CASA and the ATSB had conspired to suppress evidence that the regulator had failed in its duty and that the accident report that was subsequently withdrawn had in effect framed the captain of the Pel-Air flight.

Irrespective of the fierce arguments that the original ATSB report gave rise to, there are few precedents for a national air safety regulator to be so totally discredited for its handling of an air crash inquiry as to have to withdraw its original report and do the job again, properly.

Even though the Pel-Air crash occurred in 2009, the failed regulatory reform process in CASA has not yet fully addressed and reformed the claimed inadequacy of the original rules that applied to oceanic medical flights on the night it crashed, leading to an against-all-odds search by a Norfolk Island fishing boat which rescued all six people who had been onboard the ditched jet.

The ATSB which had resolutely refused to recover the the Westwind’s flight recorder finally retrieved it and some other wreckage from the sea bed last year, after it was ordered to do a new investigation.

(The media was left in no doubt that the ATSB was directed to carry out the new inquiry, even though the current posting on its web site makes it sound like it acted on its own initiative.)

The surviving parties in this crash will now be given a period of time in which to review the draft report and have any comments or responses they may make taken into account before the final document is published publicly next year.

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