The ATSB has just covered the Mildura fog crisis that involved Virgin Australia and Qantas 737s landing blind at the rural airport four years ago because they didn’t have enough fuel to go anywhere else, under a blanket of first class but irrelevant research.
The new research report doesn’t deal with the fact that it is permissible for domestic airliners in this country to set off on flights between cities without sufficient fuel to reach a planned alternative airport if the weather prevents them landing at their intended destination within the regulated safe minimums in terms of visibility and other conditions.
On June 18, 2013, the Qantas and Virgin flights found that they couldn’t meet those requirements because of an unforecast fog at Adelaide airport and elected to land at Mildura instead, which was within reach of their remaining fuel. However unforecast fog at Mildura saw both jets land at the country town without enough fuel to do anything else.
The upshot of various missed approaches by the jets was that the Virgin 737 eventually had to land despite considerable uncertainty as to whether it would find the runway, with the cabin prepped for a crash landing, passengers in the brace position, and calls of ‘brace, brace,brace’ from the flight attendants.
In its final report into those incidents, published last year, the ATSB said both flight crews uploaded sufficient fuel for the originally-forecast conditions in accordance with their operators’ fuel policy and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority requirements.
However the ATSB failed to inquire, in breach of its obvious responsibility to do so, into the adequacy of the Australian fuel requirements for such flights. It was severely criticised by some pilots and safety analysts at the time for its gutlessness.
That administrative cowardice extends to today’s release of a study entitled The effect of Australian aviation weather forecasts on aircraft operations: Adelaide and Mildura airports.
Today’s research release is of course first class in its compilation and execution, but structured no doubt by total coincidence, to avoid the blindingly obvious need to examine the adequacy of the fuel rules followed by Qantas and Virgin Australia on the morning of the Mildura crisis.
The 177 page research report published today says that in relation to Adelaide and Mildura (and we dare to suggest every other jet capable airport in Australia) it is relatively more important that forecasts are retrieved at the latest possible time (before the point where a diversion is no longer possible) prior to arrival.
Will this research publication fool anyone? No. It could have been subtitled How to avoid going too far up sh*t creek when the unforecast weather threatens to close airfields you never thought you’d need to land on because you really don’t have the fuel to do anything else. Two Australian passenger jets were put in harms way by inadequate fuel rules. Had developed world standards for these been in force, both jets would have diverted to more distant airports, such as at Melbourne, or Sydney, or perhaps a more distant jet runway equipped country town than Mildura that was fog free.