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air safety

Mar 9, 2017

ATSB slams AirServices for endangering two jets, helicopter over Melbourne

Nick Xenophon's allegations that air traffic management at Melbourne's two airports have put public safety at serious risk are supported by this scathing ATSB report

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An overview of the scene of this madness

The ATSB has reported on a truly third world performance by AirServices Australia in failing to properly separate two 737s using Melbourne’s main airport at Tullamarine and a helicopter above the adjacent general aviation airport at Essendon on January 26, 2016.

The safety investigator doesn’t mince words on this occasion,

On the morning of 26 January 2016, the air traffic controllers at Melbourne Airport, Victoria conducted a runway change from runway 16 for arrivals and runway 27 for departures to runway 16 for arrivals and departures. The Melbourne Tower Coordinator and the Melbourne Approach East Controller were required to coordinate the runway change with the Essendon Aerodrome Controller. However, both Melbourne controllers forgot to conduct the coordination.

At Essendon Airport, the pilot of a Robinson R44 helicopter, registered VH-WYR (WYR), had been cleared to operate overhead the airport, not above 1,500 ft, as there were overcast conditions above that level.

At 0705 Eastern Daylight-saving Time, a Boeing 737 was cleared for take-off on Melbourne runway 16. About 1 minute later, another Boeing 737 was cleared for take-off on the same runway. The Essendon Aerodrome Controller observed the first Boeing 737 departing runway 16 on their Tower Situation Awareness Display. As the controller was unaware of the change of runway at Melbourne, they believed the Boeing 737 was an uncoordinated missed approach.

Shortly after, the second Boeing 737 departure appeared on the display. The Essendon Aerodrome Controller queried the active runway with the Melbourne Planner Controller, and found out that the active runway had been changed at Melbourne Airport without the required coordination with Essendon. At 0708, the Essendon Aerodrome Controller instructed the pilot of WYR to operate over or to the east of the Essendon runway 26 threshold, ensuring a 3 NM (5.6 km) separation with the runway 16 departures from Melbourne Airport.

A review of the surveillance data confirmed losses of separation between WYR and the two Boeing 737 aircraft. At their closest, the first was 2.4 NM (4.4 km) west of and 800 ft above WYR, the second 2.5 NM (4.6 km) west of and 800 ft above. Either a 3 NM (5.6 km) surveillance separation standard or a 1,000 ft vertical separation standard was required.

What the ATSB found

The ATSB found that, while there were requirements for coordination between Melbourne and Essendon Airports, there were no documented procedures, checklists, tools or memory prompts to assist controllers to coordinate runway and airspace changes. In this case, the Melbourne Tower Coordinator and Melbourne Approach East Controller each forgot to conduct the required coordination with the Essendon Aerodrome Controller. Neither controller could explain this lapse.

The ATSB report justifies claims  repeatedly made by Senator Nick Xenophon that air navigation arrangements involving the two closely located Melbourne airports are unacceptably dangerous.

Readers can draw their own conclusions as to whether the safety findings at the end of the full report here will have outcomes which are worth the paper on which any hard copies are printed.

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