air safety

Sep 6, 2017

Botched Virgin turboprop landing attempt sees captain stand himself down

Safety investigator silent on how Virgin Australia responded to pilot confusing flaps zero with flaps 30 in botched landing approach

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

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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6 thoughts on “Botched Virgin turboprop landing attempt sees captain stand himself down

  1. Dan Dair

    One might imagine the captain stood himself down,
    because he believed it must have been a failure in his actions,
    but couldn’t fathom what that failure was.?

    Or maybe he thought he knew where the problem lay
    & didn’t fancy continuing to fly with those same problems sat next to him.?

  2. Low Flying

    35 years of military and airline flying have taught me that there is nothing so simple that you can’t stuff it up! I get less judgemental as I get more grey hairs…
    The Captain decided to put the brakes on the day as he wasn’t sure how they made the error, or he did know, as Dan alluded to. Either way, well done.

  3. comet

    Good you didn’t engage the PR people at the airline.

    PR is the evil twin of journalism.

  4. mrdeux

    Are you seriously criticising the Captain for not continuing to fly other sectors? That is a correct, but somewhat rare, response to an event that they probably did not understand.

    And, having read the report, I fail to see where your last two paragraphs come from, unless you just feel like throwing some mud. Mistakes happen in aircraft. Perhaps you should be looking at whether the aircraft flap gate design is faulty, if it allows unrestricted motion from 15 to 0 and return.

    1. Ben Sandilands

      No, and are you seriously suggesting that I did criticise the captain for that.
      Nor should journalists be expected to investigate airliner design issues. Our proper role is to find out what qualified authorities really think, and what airline people really think, and make no mistake, I did both before publishing.
      Just to underline a few things. The lack of identified carrier input or response into this ATSB report is disturbing. We needed to hear from the airline, but not gormless crap about safety being the number one priority and so forth. There is no merit in any airline claiming credit for something as a ‘priority’ that is in fact a mandatory requirement of continued compliance with an operating certificate. What is required in an explanation as to why it failed to meet that obligation, and what steps it has taken to prevent such failings recurring. Before you criticise the messenger, I’d suggest you reflect on the situation that this airliner was placed in and consider the risks that arose from that.

  5. Tango

    Well done on the captains part.

    I never flew an aircraft that required two pilots, it does seem the cross check to ensure the flaps did what they were suppose to was missing in the scan.

    CRM would say captain tells FO to give me 30 degree flaps, FO repeats it and sets it and confirms he did, then the PIC checks the flap indicator.

    I surveyed fort many years and those cross checks were mandatory there as well, and the lowest survey hand was expected to give a heads up if he saw something that was wrong.

    Obviously the FO screwed up big time and as he would have 3 actions (confirm flaps 30, set flaps 30, and then confirm flaps were at 30, enunciate to PIC that they were at 30.

    Someone with dual cockpit could tell me if the PIC does a confirm scan as well?

    I think so but?

    Regardless there were issues that badly needed to get sorted out and possibly an FO who needs to take up another career.

    PIC may have made a mistake, but that fact that he recognized there was a problem and took action raises his status up to someone worth keeping.

    PEL air pilot was in that odd sitauti9on, he screwed the pooch royally getting into the situation, but his actions once the fuel shortage *(&@ hit the fan was amazingly well done.

    And there is always that, pressure PIC should ignore but in real world keeping your job and balancing it all out may not.

    You quit and then someone else with no integrity takes over.

    Never an easy position.

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