A Virgin Australia ATR turboprop

On April 2 this year a Virgin Australia ATR turboprop was flown at the wrong speed and flap setting toward an intended landing at Brisbane Airport with 38  passengers as well as two cabin crew and two pilots on board before the captain broke off the approach after an audible warning from its enhanced ground proximity warning system.

The high wing regional airliner was less than 172 feet off the ground when the synthetic voice called TOO LOW FLAP and the captain, who was flying the approach, initiated a go-around, climbing away from the airport and bringing the flights which had started at Moranbah back for a properly configured landing.

According to the ATSB investigation into this serious incident, published today, the captain was so concerned at the events of that initial landing attempt that he then decided to stand himself and the rest of the crew down and not operate the next two intended regional flight sectors.

As the ATSB reports, it turned out that when the captain had called for the first officer to set the aircraft’s flaps to 30 degrees the junior pilot set them to the other end of the scale, at zero degrees.

The ATSB points out that had this setting been retained, the aircraft would have been moving at just under stalling speed, that is, no longer technically flying, when it made contact with the ground.

The ATSB doesn’t elaborate on the perils of such a situation, but they should be self evident. A stalled airliner discharging its kinetic energy without control on a runway at night. What could possibly go wrong?

There is no detailed explanation as to why the captain cancelled his and his crews participation in the intended next two flight sectors for this duty period.  Yet the ATSB reveals that the captain didn’t learn that the first officer had set the flaps to zero at the wrong moment, until the airline showed him a post flight animation, some time after the serious incident occurred.

This report is very thorough on the technical side as required by such an investigation. But it is silent on what actions Virgin Australia may have taken subsequently to prevent such incidents exposing their employees and their customers to the dangers or risks they pose.

In compiling this report on the ATSB investigation no media response has been sought from the airline. All that counts in these investigations is what the ATSB says it found, not statements from carriers that unfailingly state that safety is their Number One priority.

It might be this or any carrier’s number one priority, and it can be argued that it is in fact an absolute requirement of their holding an air operator certificate for the aircraft concerned and the procedures the company undertakes to enact.  These responsibilities are mandatory for Australian airlines and the personal responsibility of each and every one of their board members.  They aren’t optional, and they don’t involve the exercise of choice to make them ‘the priority’. They are compulsory.

In this case, if its accepted that safety is the number one priority of the carrier, then that priority wasn’t successfully applied.

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