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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”


Jan 24, 2013


Why Dick Smith should never be allowed near an ad using any transport mode

Dick Smith and the writer have disagreed about almost everything since we became friends, and rivals, as rock climbers in the 1960s, after being part of successive attempts on Balls Pyramid near Lord Howe Island.

But the prime time censorship of his Australia Day ‘Dick Smith Foods’ TV commercial is ridiculous and creepy.

You can see it on YouTube, and viewing by your children is recommended too, although maybe a first viewing without them would be wise.


Dick is a supporter of Australian ownership of as much industry as Australians can hang onto, but also a supporter of the current Qantas management, which is giving part of it away to Emirates, so we do disagree, a lot about Qantas. And about a more nuanced approach to foreign ownership, free trade, and why the days of Black Jack McEwen and the protectionist era are over and not coming back, and …. the list goes on and on.

But he is the only conservative I know who has actively supported the Greens on a wide range of issues, including his crucial support of the purchase of Recherche Bay and its forgotten garden, and his support for David Hicks, an Australian citizen abandoned by an Australian government complicit in his politically convenient framing by the most recklessly dishonest American administration in living memory.

There are many other things he has done to the betterment of this country that are in confidence until or if he chooses otherwise.

For Smith to offend the sensibilities of those who want to limit media freedoms ought to be a badge of honour on Australia Day.  And Yes, the ad does ‘exploit’ the plight of boat people, in the sense that it makes fun of them. But, that’s the point. It is an hilarious part of the commercial. It isn’t inciting the sort of venomous hatred that is concocted by and massaged for the political ear of the meanest and most ignorant sections of our society by the policy directorships of the major parties.

Why can’t we be generous and good natured about such things? And have a laugh, even if we must also weep a lot.


Jul 27, 2011


For those who find the UK-Australia flights somewhat crowded and boring, Dave Sykes, who sometimes answers to ‘Spokes’ or ‘Wheely,’ has an alternative.

The paraplegic microlight pilot and adventurer, who set out from York on April 28, has now reached Bali, and hopes to make his first Australian touchdown in Darwin soon.


So stop whinging about tiny seats, stuffy air conditioning and boring in-flight videos.  Dave gets fresh air in his face (and ice, rain, dust and insects) gets sparks of static electricity in his hair, flies under and through clouds, and sees the wave tops, the forests, the villages, the great cities, the winding paths seldom trodden, and the great highways and bridges, close up, in living color, in 360 degrees projection that beats anything you’ll ever see on a seat back screen.

Instead of dealing with the hassles of terminals as packed as any shopping mall in the usual way, Dave deals with packing and unpacking his wheel chair, which is stowed on the tiny powered buzz bug has been his aerial transport for the last three months, and will  continue to be for some days to come, when he starts flying across the outback on his way to Sydney and then on to a personal finish line in Newcastle.

He originally intended to make the flight last year, to honor the 80th anniversary of the first solo flight by a woman between England and Australia by Amy Johnson in 1930. His cause is to raise money for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

Dick Smith, who knows a great deal about adventure flights and aviation history, says “As far as I am concerned, it will have been the greatest adventure flight from England to Australia in over fifty years – comparable with Bert Hinkler and Amy Johnson”.

Dave’s journey can be followed on his website, which is, like flying a motorised hang glider, slow but rewarding.


Jul 14, 2011


Dick Smith knows how to get people to think about difficult ideas, whether it is population and sustainability, or airline safety.

His argument, published in a Steve Creedy article in the Australian yesterday, that Qantas had no option but to shift everything it could to China, worked very well, considering it was up against the carbon tax and the News phone-hacking-scandal.

But did he mean it? Well, Yes, but he also meant it to encourage Australians to support the Australian icon, as he makes clear in this extract from an email to Richard Woodward, the vice president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, which is reproduced with Smith’s permission.

In my opinion Smith should also be encouraging Qantas management to support the national icon, instead of attacking it, by keeping it as Australian as possible, and coming clean on how much cross subsidisation of the Jetstar franchise is affecting the claimed dismal performance of the full service international brand.

This is not a question of saying Joyce is wrong about the outlook for international, it’s tough and that’s his job to deal with, but being able to get a full account of how much Jetstar gets by way of fuel, fleet, training and other costs would give everyone a much clearer picture.

As Smith well knows a Qantas that was set up in China, with its air traffic rights intact (somehow), would no longer be an Australian airline worthy of patriotic support, and that such significant employers of Australian aviation expertise as Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific would take quickly take their share of what is left by an already diminished Qantas operation.

Nor is defeatism something Smith would ever truly endorse. His real argument appears to be against ‘open skies’ agreements, free trade deals and the dismantling of protection for Australian ventures in general.

When I asked if he would support the protection of Qantas at the cost of our mineral and agricultural exports on world markets, and China in particular, he said he wouldn’t.

Let us contemplate what would have happened if past governments had not liberalised international air services to the extent that they have.  Halving the frequency of Emirates flights doesn’t mean all of those displaced passengers automatically fly Qantas. It means some of them would still fly Thai or Singapore Airlines because of superior networks and one stop flights to cities in Europe,  for example, that Qantas hands over to British Airways at London to complete their journey via an additional time wasting and frustrating stop.

Nor does it automatically means that the non-Australian airlines would crank up their prices. But it would mean that developing non-UK centric markets in the middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa would be cut off. And more trade doors in terms of resources and agriculture would be if not shut, made harder to pass through.

Where does the solution lie? Surely not in defeatism or a village economy policy in Australia.  If Qantas can’t exist without turning Chinese, or Asian, or whatever, then it won’t really be Qantas anyhow.

As an astute businessman Smith would,  instead of recommending relocation, come out in favor of liquidation, which would be a much cleaner and more profitable death.

In his speech announcing the impending Qantas reorganisation to be announced on August 24, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, referred to a cost advantage of up to 24 per cent being held by its full service competitors.

This is not an unclosable gap for an Australian carrier.  In terms of capital costs Qantas has an advantage over its cheaper cost base competitors because of the strength of our currency. Both fuel and fleet cost less for carriers with AUD balance sheets than those in China, or the Middle East, but Qantas and Virgin Australia are disadvantaged without doubt by Australian taxes and depreciation rules.  Generally speaking Australian pilots work in the UAE to make more money than they can in this country after tax, not less.

In the foreseeable future as China, Vietnam and eastern Europe and southern American nations become more prosperous, their costs also begin to rise, just as the size of their national demand for air travel and other goods and services grow.

Short term defeatism (and I’m sure Smith isn’t at heart a defeatist) would cost Australia longer term opportunities too awful to contemplate. That is why fairly negotiated agreements at Qantas to retain its standards of excellence in piloting and engineering are so badly needed, with a commitment to having highly trained Australian based pilots and engineers flying or servicing a truly Australian airline.


Oct 7, 2010


There are many reviews about Air Asia’s low prices, seating and service standards on the various consumer sites or travel reports on the internet. Some critical, some favourable.

However this correspondence, forwarded to Plane Talking by Dick Smith, is in a class of its own, both for the observational details and the responses received by the passenger.

Smith says “The honesty and openness of the replies from the carrier and aviation authority is very impressive. It would be great if this was replicated by Australian carriers and our authorities when members of the public draw attention to issues that concern them, even if the concerns may be misplaced to some extent.”

This is the correspondence between the passenger (name withheld) and Air Asia and with the Malaysia Department of Civil Aviation.

It appears that air safety rules in Malaysia may be somewhat laid-back.

Please read the following correspondence and give me your opinion and comments.





Best regards

(Name supplied and confirmed)


Booking No. xxxxxx included the return flight AK5163 Sandakan to Kuala Lumpur on 23 August 2010.
An incident occurred with the Captain of the aircraft which was totally unacceptable. I was seated in seat 30A. Approximately 45 minutes into the flight I noticed the captain loitering between the cockpit and the first row of seats. He did not appear to be doing anything meaningful, just wandering aimlessly. He would come out from behind the partition, look towards the rear of the aircraft and then wander back behind the partition. I thought this was a little strange, so I watched him. He then came out from behind the partition an this time looked to the rear of the aircraft with a look than showd he was looking for something in particular. He then walked to the back of the aircraft. As he passed me I noticed a smirky look on his face. After he has been in the rear galley area for 20 to 30 minutes the laughter and noise level had increased to such an extent that I wondered why the captain had not returned to the cockpit. I unbucked my seat belt and went to the rear galley. The captain had his back to me and appeared to be entertaining the flight attendants who joined in the laughter. I tapped the captain (who had four gold stripes on his shoulders) and asked him if he was the captain of this flight. He replied that he was. I asked him how many pilots were in the cockpit and he relied that one pilot was in the cockpit. I asked him why he had not returned to the cockpit and he laughed at me. It took me considerable pursuation to convince the captain that it was his job to be in the cockpit and not in the rear galley entertaining the cabin flight attendants. I think he may have been concerned that he would loose face with the flight attandants if he returned to the cockpit. However, he did return to the cockpit. Also, as well as the captain and the flight attendants, there was also another Air Asia pilot who also appeared to have the rank of captain, as he too had four gold stripes on each shoulder, in the rear galley area at the same time.
If two pilots were socialising in the rear galley, I wander if there really was a pilot in the cockpit. I hope that the aircraft was not flying on auto-pilot without a pilot to monitor the instruments.
As I understand commercial flight rules, there must be two pilots in the cockpit at all times, unless there are circumstances which require a pilot to leave the cockpit. And then he must return as soon as possible.

It appears that the fun and friendliness of the flight attendants has brought out a weakness in this captain which requires your attention.
This matter is very serious and could have jeopodised the safety of all people on board should an emergency have occurred.
As this stage I have not reported the incident to the Malaysian Air Safety Authority. I will wait for your reply before doing so. However, should you decide to ignore this matter I will advise the civil aviation and air safety authorities in Malaysia.
This matter is serious and should be investigated for you to ascertain exactly what the cirmstances were for the captain of the aircraft to be absent from the cockpit for twenty to thirty minutes during the flight.
I await your reply


Reply from Air Asia….

An internal investigation was recently carried out and all crew members were questioned on the events onboard AK5163/23AUG10.

The Captain of the flight, Captain Wan Nazarudin did indeed leave the Flight Deck with the intention of using the toilet. He initially waited in the forward cabin area for the forward toilet to become available. This would have been when (name), who was seated in the second last row of the plane, saw the Captain “loitering” in the front section of the aircraft. After some time, as the forward toilet continued to be occupied, Captain Wan Nazarudin decided to proceed to the aft section of the aircraft to use the toilets there. According to him and the crew members present, the aft toilets were occupied too. While at the aft cabin, he had a chat with the Flight Attendants and the travelling Engineer. My assumption is that Mr Murphy mistook the travelling Engineer as another pilot as he was also in his full uniform consisting of a white shirt, black pants and gold striped epaulettes.

On investigating the length of time that the Captain was out of the Flight Deck, the First Officer and Flight Attendants all independently stated that he was out of the Flight Deck for approximately 15 minutes and not 20-30 minutes as Mr Murphy as claimed. Our company policy does allow our pilots to leave the Flight Deck for physiological needs and at all times, the fully trained First Officer would have been in full control and able to handle any untoward incident. However, our company appreciates the concern that Mr (name) has shown towards the safety of the flight and has taken Captain Wan Nazarudin to task for the apparent “extended period of time” spent outside the Flight Deck. In addition, a notice will be sent to the pilots reminding them of the company policy and highlighting the need to be more responsible in the interest of flight safety and public perception.

I do hope this explanation will suffice. I will be more than happy to provide additional information should it be required.

Thank you.

Yours truly,
Captain Rajesh Gill
Flight Operations
AirAsia Berhad
LCC Terminal, Jalan KLIA S3,
Southern Support Zone
Kuala Lumpur International Airport,
64000 Sepang, Selangor Darul Ehsan,


Dato’ Yahaya B. Abdul Rahman To:
(name and email address)

An internal investigation was recently carried out and all crew members were questioned on the events onboard AK5163

Dear (name) ,
I have received the respond from AA Flight Operations Department which is self explanatory. Please read the explanation and revert back to me for any furthur comment. Our Civil Aviation Regulation 1996, under Regulation 56 (1) require one pilot to remain at the controls at all times while the aircraft is in flight. However for two pilots operations the commander shall remain at the controls during take off and landing.


Aug 3, 2010


With no certainty at this stage as to which miserably mean spirited and visionless conservative party will win the August 21 election, it might be reasonable to tidy up a critical element in the radar and air space controversy that Dick Smith recently ignited.

The central issue is that of dragging Australia into world’s best practice, and using active air traffic control, by air traffic controllers rather than busy pilots, to separate passenger airliners from other aircraft when using Australian airports.

It is a no brainer, but in a nation where pilots, airlines and regulators ferociously resisted black box flight recorders and weather radar, if not the use of radio and enclosed cockpits nearly 100 years ago, anything is possible when airline greed and pilot complicity coincide.

This is the recent political history of air space reform.

In 2004 John Anderson, the Minister for Transport in a Howard Government, issued a ministerial direction that radar control would be used to separate airliners approaching and departing a number of regional airports, including Launceston, where there was not just a serious incident on May 1, 2008, but subsequently, the release of a deficient ATSB report that made no safety recommendations and tip toed around the air space management issues it should have addressed.

Anderson was ignored.

Before the 2007 Federal election the Shadow Transport Minister, Martin Ferguson said:

FergusonFerguson (in my opinion) was the tool of the airlines and the change resistant culture of aviation regulation in Australia.

Dick Smith has shared with me a letter he wrote to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently concerning that policy switch, and his fear that if re-elected, a Labor government would NOT introduce the active separation of airliners using Launceston Airport.

In that letter he says:

DS extractOn July 21 we reported the ministerial direction made by the current Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, that active control be provided 24/7/365 at Launceston.

On July 25 we reported that as indicated in the documentation from CASA that Minister Albanese relied upon, this was not the case, and on July 26 we reported that it really was the case.

What we didn’t report at the time was that ‘some unfortunate errors in press release writing’ had caused the misunderstanding. My view is that in fact CASA was trying to pull the wool over Albanese’s eyes, by framing its recommendations to conform with change resistance in air space reform in this country, and that Albanese is not John Anderson, and that this was a serious error of judgement somewhere along the path from the air space regulation office in CASA to the Minister’s minders.

Thus we have now reached a position where if re-elected Labor will do what Albanese promised to do, which is an historic advance for air safety in this country, and that if the Coalition is elected to government its Minister for Transport will carry out what it previously promised to do, but failed to enforce under John Anderson.


Jul 25, 2010


There are problems with the intervention by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, to end the unsafe situation involving airliner flights at Launceston Airport.

After reading the CASA review document on which he based his advice to interested media of a ministerial direction that the problems were to be addressed these problems are:

1. Nothing has changed
2. The Minister doesn’t recognise an unsafe situation exists at Launceston, and
3. He has promised within six months full radar ‘supervision’ of out-of-hours flights at Launceston, even though such ‘supervision’ occurred, by chance, in the close encounter between a Virgin Blue 737 and a Jetstar A320 on the night of May 1, 2008, and failed to prevent the incident occurring.

In fact the Minister has revoked the air navigation changes the previous government tried to introduce, and with its support while in opposition. Yet they would have prevented the incompetence displayed by a Virgin Blue crew from endangering a total of 222 people on board both jets on the night in question.

It is now clear that last Friday, when the Minister ordered the use of radar to separate jet airliner movements at Launceston he was in fact endorsing the status quo, which involves do-it-yourself separation by jets which remain visible yet uncontrolled by the national air traffic radar system in Melbourne once the tower controllers at Launceston have clocked off.

If the Minister is serious about how safe the Launceston situation is then why don’t government and vice-regal flights into situations like those prevailing at Launceston on that night subject themselves to the same risks as he deems acceptable to ordinary Australians on scheduled airliners.

That is, have politicians in the VIP aircraft fly uncontrolled approaches and departures at Launceston on foggy nights which depend on the pilots of all aircraft in the same airspace using the same radio frequency, talking to each other and accurately describing their position, and sorting out who goes where, while paying attention to such things as the big mountains close to the airport?

It’s a game of Australian jet roulette that’s been played too many times in our airspace, aided by the venality of airline managements who think it is acceptable to save cents per passenger to schedule their jets into places like Launceston when they don’t have to pay tower fees for air traffic control all the way down to the ground after their flights descend out of the en route airspace which is controlled from the AirServices Australia centre in Melbourne (or Brisbane in some parts of the country).

The situation that provoked a fierce attack by Dick Smith was the release by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau of a report which took two years to produce (and get ticked as safe for publication by the airlines, CASA and AirServices Australia) which said their were no safety issues and made no safety recommendations.

Let’s recap. Two jets, saving each airline a total of $76 in additional air traffic control charges by scheduling arrival after the tower controllers go home, discover in quick succession that the Launceston runway is invisible in the fog at 200 feet, which is ‘decision’ height. So they fly away to see if the fog will clear, after which, if it hadn’t, they would have diverted to Hobart or Melbourne.

The ATSB finds that Virgin Blue ‘inadequately communicated’ its intentions to Jetstar. The first Jetstar knew about the real whereabouts of Virgin Blue was when it spotted its landing lights coming toward it as it broke through the top of the fog bank at 2800 feet.

Jetstar couldn’t dive because it was entering air space where the safe minimum altitude, because of mountains, is 3100 feet, which is where Virgin Blue was, so it had to climb up through the altitude being tracked by the 737.

If ever there was a situation where the lethal potential of non radar controlled procedures was present this was it, but the ATSB, to its discredit, saw no safety issues, and made no safety recommendations which in the opinion of this writer and others, betrayed a political sensitivity which overrode its obligation to independently and fearlessly address safety issues.

These were two Australian jet airliners and 222 people in jeopardy, yet in its survey of regional airports, CASA claims “there were no imminent safety concerns identified at the ten regional aerodromes”.

There is entrenched change resistance in the administrative, political and commercial culture of aviation in Australia, as evidenced in the ABC Hobart video below, showing an old school pilot saying there is only a ‘tiny risk’ in the current way situations like the Launceston incident are dealt with.

Only a tiny risk of hitting a mountain without ATC control. Oh what a relief!
Only a tiny risk of hitting a mountain without ATC control. Oh what a relief!

Captain Peter Lovett (above) attacks Smith for being ridiculous, but then goes on to admit the situation was ‘less than desirable’ and ‘almost failsafe’. Almost failsafe! Explain ‘ridiculous’ please Captain Lovett. The risk in this situation is totally avoidable by the use of technology we already have. The prime cause of aircraft crashes in Australia is controlled flight into terrain or CFIT, a risk present in the Launceston incident and conspicuously not mentioned in the ATSB report.

The rest of the world knows better than Captain Lovett, or those change resistant voices advising the Minister. The Australian way of risking Launceston type situations has been long discarded elsewhere, where active controlled separation of jet airliner movements is ‘normal’.

There is a difference between the Minister’s embrace of ‘supervision’ rather than ‘control’ and it can result in otherwise avoidable carnage.

A pre-radar approaching plane listening device, as old as the Launceston method
A pre-radar approaching plane listening device, as old as the Launceston method


Jul 21, 2010


Although none of the questions asked by Crikey and Plane Talking about the close encounter between a Jetstar A320 and a Virgin Blue Boeing 737 near Launceston have been answered, some shabby spinning by the two airlines is underway.

On the ABC a spokesperson for Jetstar, Simon Westaway, says it is “completely satisfied with safety at Tasmania’s airports.”

The spokesperson for Virgin Blue, Colin Lippiatt, is quoted in the ‘The Mercury’ as saying “flight crews in the Launceston incident had been aware of each other and of the need to maintain adequate separation.”

Lippiatt is clearly hoping no-one will read the actual ATSB report which finds the Virgin Blue crew failed to adequately communicate its intentions to the Jetstar crew, and that the Jetstar crew first realised the seriousness of the situation when they saw the landing lights of the Virgin Blue jet headed toward them above the top of the fog which had forced both jets to go around.

If Virgin Blue cannot deal truthfully and frankly with the contents of an ATSB report then the new management needs to take a cold hard look at where it is headed in terms of the risks inadequate air navigation practices in Australia pose to the carrier.

This near disaster was watched by a radar control system the two jets couldn’t use while Virgin Blue left Jetstar in the dark, literally, in fog over mountanous terrain.

Both airlines scheduled their jets to arrive at Launceston after the existing air traffic control service at the airport had gone home for the night so that they could save cents per passenger seat.

They relied on a self separation system of jet talking to jet that came close to killing 222 people, and still want the public to believe this is safe.

In the light of events over Launceston the procedure was not safe. It is considered intolerably unsafe in airline operations in other parts of the world.

After investigating the incident the ATSB produced a report which made no safety recommendations.

The ATSB has told ‘The Mercury” that “it stood by its investigation of the Launceston incident and that the report was an ‘appropriate reflection of the circumstances’.”

We have asked the ATSB the following three questions, to which we await answers.

1. Why didn’t the ATSB make any safety recommendations in relation to the Launceston incident?

2. Will the ATSB release the submissions it received from the airlines and other parties in preparing this report, and ATSB reports in general, so that the public can understand why it is satisfied with the safety outcomes in a situation where two Australian jet airliners flew toward each other in cloud tops within airspace subject to terrain limitations?

3. Is the making of safety recommendations as to the use of radar separation or the application of air navigation procedures which are radar related off limits to the independent investigator of air safety incidents in Australia?


Jul 20, 2010


Dick Smith’s attack on the ATSB’s report into a close encounter between a Virgin Blue 737 and a Jetstar A320 over a fog bound Launceston Airport on May 1, 2008, applies heat to two critical issues.

They are secrecy and unaccountability in our safety investigator the ATSB, and the safety regular, CASA, and dangerously derelict use of air traffic control radar where it is available in Australian skies.

From this morning 'The Examiner'
From this morning's 'The Examiner'

As reported in the Crikey email bulletin this afternoon, Smith took out full page ads in the Tasmanian dailies and released a letter he has sent to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, containing implications of misconduct or incompetence by the ATSB that cannot be easily brushed aside, as well as a claim that the government has reneged on the bi-partisan support it gave to air navigation reforms while in opposition.

From 'The Mercury' this morning
From 'The Mercury' this morning

The air proximity incident occurred in full view of AirSerices Australia’s excellent, world class radar system, yet it wasn’t, as a consequent of deliberate air traffic control management policy, being used to keep the jets safely apart.

It is only by good luck that 222 people didn’t die in a mid air collision between the two jets.

Yet the ATSB didn’t make a single safety recommendation following its inquiries into the incident, even though both jets were being displayed as in a dangerous situation on Australia’s air traffic control radar system.

Instead it took secret submissions from the two airlines, AirServices Australia and the air safety regulator, CASA, before coming out with an obviously inadequate report which seems more designed to keep the public in the dark than address a glaring deficiency in so far as available radar isn’t being used to keep Australian airliners apart.

What was in those submissions? ATSB suppression of submissions from airlines and other authorities after it has completed its inquiries and before it issues a report make the transparent enforcement of safety standards in Australian aviation an impossibility.

In the Tasmanian press this morning the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, is quoted as saying he has relied on ‘experts’ for advice about how safe the air navigation system is, a rather sanguine view of a system that was switched on but not being applied over Launceston.

Who are these faceless ‘experts’ controlling the failure of Labor to safely administer aviation in the country?

How can they possibly justify the leaving of two jet airliners to their own devices to keep themselves apart, in a part of the skies where there is, incredibly, no declared safe separation requirements, while the radar remains on.

Why is the ATSB silent on this? Then again, one has to question, as Plane Talking has in the past, why the ATSB is a push over when Jetstar breaks the law on reportable air safety incidents and goes unprosecuted, yet a tiny little outfit like Transair, which had barely enough seats in its Metroliners to kill 15 people at a time, was, way too late, prosecuted by the investigator for a history of not reporting similar matters and then only after the Lockhart River crash.

Or why it failed to even investigate REX flying a plane load of passengers most of the way from Wagga Wagga to Sydney in 2007 with one engine shut down. Past available emergency landing strips, and over the southern highlands. And then made excuses for the airline, rather than pursue the matter?

Or expressed satisfaction, without elaboration, in the ‘safety outcomes’, after a Qantaslink Dash 8 was so unprofessionally flown into Sydney Airport on Boxing Day 2008 that it almost stalled twice in ten seconds while the first officer disobeyed the captain’s directions.

Earlier discussions of proposed air space reforms in this country have foundered on eye-glazing discussions of the different classes of airspace, labelled as E, D and C in most of the examples that were dissected by warring factions in the aviation community.

The distinctions don’t matter in terms of policy settings. All that matters is that the radar resource than is used in the rest of the world to keep aircraft apart is conscientiously not being used in Australia.

As Smith points out in his letter to the PM, we have in recent years in Australia, seen six people fly to their deaths in the Benalla private aircraft crash on July 28, 2004, while observed to be off course on radar, and had a Qantas 737 descend in the dark below the summit of adjacent Mt Tinderry but by coincidence, along the defile of a river valley, on 24 July, 2004, while under national radar coverage as it was making a botched approach to Canberra.

The idiocy if not culpability of not using the available radar coverage to prevent such errors has not engaged the minds of successive minister responsible for aviation, perhaps because they consult advisers who are inside the aviation establishment tent and thus part of the problem rather than its resolution.

One reason for the resistance of the aviation establishment to air space reform may be the hatred felt in parts of the aviation community for Dick Smith.

If this is so, it will be a very poor excuse for public policy failures that will inevitably lead to slaughter in our skies.