Menu lock

air safety

Jun 27, 2015


Dick Smith, aviator, businessman, and supporter of good causes

In recent months an important, if not broadly understood aviation issue has been pursued behind the paywall of The Australian by Dick Smith on one side and the air traffic control provider AirServices Australia on the other.

Paywalls are essential if professional journalism is to survive, but unfortunately, a model that works effectively in Australia in conjunction with broad readership hasn’t yet been proven, which means that  it is questionable as to whether there has been much connection between a crucial number of readers and the issues that have been raised by the newspaper’s detailed and perceptive coverage.

Yet that continuing argument, concerning new air traffic control technology  (ADS-B or automatic dependant surveillance-broadcast) is one in which ruinous costs could lead to the shorter term destruction of the already hard pressed private and general aviation sectors in this country.

GA operators and private pilots are being asked to spend substantial sums of money on equipment that makes them ADS-B visible,  yet not in practice be of use in many lower flight level situations, meaning that the money spent will not deliver improved safety outcomes in airspace and approaches to a wide range of secondary or regional airstrips where they are urgently needed.

These include airports where civil airliners, hobby ultra-light flyers, parachutists, private jets,  more conventional propeller light aircraft and helicopters might all  be using the same airspace, such as around Ballina or Port Macquarie.

While there are many voices canvassed by The Australian stories, and the twists and turns in the narratives do not lend themselves to bland summary, the twin focuses of the row have been on the opposing positions taken by Dick Smith and Angus Houston, who is the chairman of AirServices Australia.

Angus, as he prefers to be called, says everything is fine and Dick is wrong, and has in passing taken umbrage at criticism in the Senate of the amount of money being paid to AirServices managers, who are responsible for a public enterprise which supports itself from air navigation charges and makes profits which flow straight into Treasury.

My view is that Angus underlines a problem with the administrative and executive branches in Australia, in that there is a strong preference in Government to believe anything the Mandarins tell Ministers regardless of what party or coalition is in power,  and that there is sod all serious independent auditing of claims and budget efficiency.

Angus is very loyal to his organisation, and some very fine professionals within it, but perhaps insufficiently skeptical of its narrative over the application of ADS-B technology as it currently stands.

Dick isn’t the only prominent general aviation figure quoted by coverage in The Australian  as to the inadequacy of the airspace management in Australia today, and the more so, under ADS-B in the near future.

If Angus were to shift modes from defending the air traffic control establishment to dealing with the need to make the reforms work without further risking the survivability of the private pilot and general aviation interests in Australia we might have progress.

It seems inescapably reasonable that spending on ADS-B and the proper management of airspace must produce a very significant improvement in air safety by diminishing risk across all flying activities that involve the sharing of the skies between larger and smaller aircraft.

Otherwise, through insupportable cost pressures and inefficiencies, the very food chain in the aviation industry in terms of training, experience and critical skills in support services will be broken, and the ‘common good’ to use an old fashioned term, will be deeply harmed.

air safety

Jun 13, 2015


Angus Houston chairman of AirServices Australia in an explanatory moment

Dick Smith has driven a long series of disclosures in recent weeks in The Australian of absurdities in the administration of air services and safety in this country, and this morning’s installment concerning Lord Howe Island air traffic issues is by far the most telling. Continue reading “Air traffic control absurdities highlighted by Dick Smith”

air safety

May 22, 2014


A US Navy photo of the Bluefin-21 device being deployed off ADV Ocean Shield

The leader of the Australian coordinated search for missing flight MH370, Angus Houston, says he is ‘absolutely convinced’ that the Malaysia Airlines 777 with 239 people on board crashed in the southern Indian Ocean west to northwest of Perth on 8 March after it mysteriously vanished from ATC radar screens on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. Continue reading “MH370 Search leader certain lost jet is off Western Australia”


Dec 7, 2011


The appointment of retired defence force chief Angus Houston as chairman of air traffic control provider AirServices Australia from 3 June should be reviewed for several reasons, namely the Joint Strike Fighter and Firepower fuel pill fiascos.

By the time he takes the chair the JSF project will either be in deeper crisis, or cancelled, and Australia will be dealing with the consequences for its reliance on it to maintain air power superiority, something that as recently as three years ago Houston had assured the government it would start doing from 2014.

The criticism of Houston and the defence establishment that has been made here on many occasions is that he behaved more like part of the promotional arm of lead contractor Lockheed Martin than a customer for an immensely costly and complex project in which Australia should have been exercising intense oversight and auditing its progress at every step of the way.

But Australia did none of those things. It was taken for a sucker by a project in which the only thing that ever worked was a campaign of misinformation, supported by a defence establishment that behaved like a cheer squad.

This is what Houston said concerning the JSF project in The Age on 21 November 2008:

The new Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is exactly what Australia needs and there are no concerns at all that it won’t perform properly, the Defence Force chief says.

Defence head Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said on Friday that the JSF would dominate the skies, perform close air support for troops on the ground, as well as strike maritime targets.

“Performance is fabulous. It is exactly what we need. There are no performance concerns about the JSF in the Australian Defence Force, in the air force, indeed anywhere,” he told reporters.

“It will be a very capable aircraft which will give us exactly what we need.”

Air Chief Marshal Houston said Lockheed had learned much from its development of the F-22 Raptor fighter.

He said the company had also gone to considerable effort to reduce the risks associated with developing aircraft electronic systems.

“The whole approach in the JSF is very innovative and takes full account of the lessons learned from the F-22 program,” he said.


Was Houston reading from similarly worded Lockheed Martin briefings to the defence reporters who went for years without asking a single probing question about the project, or was he truly ignorant of the state of affairs in the program that was starting to generate deep alarm within the Pentagon and US military observers? Your guess is as good as mine, but whatever the answer it wasn’t in the interests of this country for its defence chief to be so dismally ill informed, if not inactive in pursuing the true state of affairs.

More than two months before Houston metaphorically twirled the pom poms for the Lockheed Martin circus by declaring ‘performance is fabulous’ this story about the use of a Naval vessel for a promotion by the Firepower fuel pill fraudsters appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

A 4200-TONNE navy guided missile frigate was handed over at taxpayers’ expense for a gala sponsorship function involving the failed fuel pill company Firepower soon after Defence Force chiefs became investors.

Documents obtained by the Herald indicate that those investors included the head of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and his wife Liz, the Deputy Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, a former senior naval officer, Commodore Kevin Taylor, and the former air force chief, Air Marshal Errol McCormack.

HMAS Sydney was moored at the navy’s base at Garden Island when it was used for the official launch of the Sydney Kings basketball season in September 2006.

The function was organised by Firepower – which had just become the team’s sponsor – and the ship was packed with journalists, other sponsors and merchant bankers, who clutched drinks served to them by dark-suited sailors.

Basketball players in blue-striped polo shirts and baseball caps posed for photographs next to the ship’s weapons. The symbolism was strong: Firepower next to the firepower, the Kings next to the new kings of the sporting world.

At the time, Firepower was on its way to becoming the biggest sporting sponsor in the country, using some of the more than $80 million pumped in by investors on the promise of spectacular returns.

One of Firepower’s pitches to potential investors was that it sold its products – pills and liquids said to dramatically reduce fuel consumption and toxic emissions – to the Australian military and to other armies around the world. None of it was true, but Firepower employees at the function literally swept from one person to the next generating confidence.


In the SMH story Houston insists that he was innocent of any involvement in the organisation of the use of Commonwealth property, to wit, a guided missile frigate, to promote what at that stage, in 2006, had dodgy scam written all over it to anyone with half their brain engaged.

The point is, he was head of defence, and ought to have been aware of what was proposed at the function, and given his investment in the yet to fail company, heard loud clanging alarm bells going off in his cranium warning of conflict of interest.

For a person so gullible as to be ripped off to the tune of $15,000 in his investment in a magic fuel pill company, and to have earlier allowed himself to be photographed on the deck of a naval warship being used to promote a product in which he had a vested interest, and then been comprehensively misinformed about the JSF, the question of his suitability to chair AirServices Australia has to be asked, again and again and again.

AirServices Australia has serious problems, only some of which are reported here, in an article that links through to additional examples of the dangers the air traffic control provider has recently posed to air travellers.

It is a body that requires serious executive oversight.


UPDATE: (Ret’d) Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston responds:

Ben Sandilands’ article is inaccurate and the public record needs to be corrected.

At no time was I involved in any way in the promotion of Firepower, nor in the decision to hold the Sydney Kings function (who were sponsored by Firepower) on HMAS Sydney in September 2006.

Defence is a large organisation and as Chief of the Defence Force I did not involve myself in the day-to-day public affairs activities of the three Services.

The decision to host the Sydney Kings function was made by the then commanding officer of HMAS Sydney who approached the Sydney Kings about holding a function as part of their community engagement program. I had no contact with that officer in regards to hosting this event.

To suggest otherwise as Ben Sandilands does is plain wrong and misleading to your readers.

Your sincerely,

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC (Ret’d)