IT was just before 10am on June 18, 2013, when two passenger planes full of Adelaide-bound passengers suddenly found themselves in the midst of an air emergency above Mildura.
Two Boeing 737s, flown by Qantas and Virgin, diverted to Mildura after encountering unexpected fog on their respective journeys from Sydney and Brisbane.
But when they arrived above Mildura, the pilots discovered fog had unexpectedly rolled in across Sunraysia too – contrary to the advice they had received from the weather bureau.
The Qantas plane made an emergency landing with low visibility at Mildura Airport.
The Virgin aircraft landed shortly after.
Passengers on that plane were ordered to brace and stay low as the flight descended through fog with just enough fuel left to last a matter of minutes.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s (ATSB) eventual findings into the incident identified safety issues with the information the pilots received from weather forecasting services.
A further ATSB report, issued this week, provided 177 pages of detailed research into weather conditions at Mildura and Adelaide airports, which had in cases such as the 2013 emergency, led to landings below safe limits.
But some have questioned whether the safety authority has so far failed to address more serious safety flaws in Australian aviation standards and there are fears the nation’s impeccable safety record has masked serious shortcomings.
At least one experienced pilot has suggested the situation, and potential disasters, could be avoided if domestic jets in Australia were required to carry extra fuel to allow them to land at alternative airports.
Pilots also say the incident highlighted the lack of modern infrastructure to allow planes to land in low visibility at even the nation’s primary airports.
A retired pilot, whose 31-year career culminated in flying the Airbus A380 internationally for Emirates, says Sunraysia was dangerously close to witnessing two airliners coming to grief carrying between them more than 250 people.
James Nixon, who flew to Mildura regularly early in his career, said the problem began in the early 1990s when the aviation industry introduced changes under the mantra of “affordable safety”.
He said the pressure to cut costs on safety was driven by an industry with increasingly tight profit margins and a public more concerned with “how comfortable the seats are and what movies are being shown” than the safety of aviation.
The ATSB found both flight crews involved in the Mildura incident were carrying enough fuel for forecast conditions at Adelaide Airport in accordance with their airlines’ fuel policies.
Mr Nixon said many overseas countries with shorter distances between potential landing sites still required airlines to carry enough fuel to divert to an alternative airport.
“But Australia is a big country and you can’t land many places,” he said.
“Pilots don’t carry extra fuel because they think the weather is all right but it’s not only the weather that’s the problem.
“If someone has crashed a light plane on the runway, how are you going to get the wreck off the runway, especially if there are people dead and the investigators want to take a look?”
He said pilots, particularly less experienced ones who needed it the most, were not inclined to carry extra fuel for safety because of a “perceived risk” their superiors would haul them into an office and demand an explanation for their decision.
“It’s almost insurmountable, the amount of stress these pilots are under,” he said.
“If you’re a junior captain, carry the fuel.”
Mr Nixon said the rule change he would suggest was simple.
“Every pilot in Australia must have an alternate under all circumstances or two hours’ island reserve,” he said.
“Then their flight plan would’ve had enough fuel to go from Brisbane to Adelaide to Melbourne.”
“I did that myself one day. “Flying from Melbourne, we got above Nhill and they said ‘you’ve got fog in Adelaide’ and we said ‘see you later, we’ll go back to Melbourne’.”
However, Adam Susz, treasurer of the Australian and International Pilots Association, representing about 2250 Qantas Group domestic and international pilots, said Australia’s fuel carrying requirements were not the issue.
“I don’t think there is any reason to consider our policies in Australia as deficient,” he said.
“Sometimes – and it is rare – unforecast fog will be something we face but mostly what happens is you’ve got the ability to divert to an airport where the weather is OK.
“As much as we would love to fill up our tanks for every flight, that’s just not commercially viable.”
Mr Susz, who flies Boeing 747s on international routes for Qantas, said the pilots caught in unexpected fog at Mildura were “unlucky”.
“They were kind of snookered and it seems to me, in these circumstances they faced, they were professional, they got the plane down safely.
“The biggest thing in that event I saw was the information just didn’t get to the pilots.”
Mr Susz said it was the pilots’ responsibility to comply with company fuel policies and aviation authorities’ regulations.
“Sometimes we just don’t have the ability to carry extra fuel, particularly international flights you don’t have that luxury because you’re flying a long way,” he said.
“Domestically, we have a lot more flexibility to carry the extra fuel but there is a cost.
“You burn more fuel to carry that extra fuel.
“And the more fuel you burn during the flight, somebody has to pay for that, whether it’s the passenger, or the operator out of their margins.”
It’s a consideration pilots like Mr Susz often have to make flying jets into Australia from overseas because Qantas does not require its inbound flights to carry fuel for an alternative airport.
“Other airlines have policies where they are required to always have an alternate airport to divert to,” he said.
“(Qantas) don’t necessarily have that policy as it stands but the policy we do have serves us well.”
Mr Susz said he would welcome aviation infrastructure upgrades, like more instrument landing systems (ILS) that allow pilots to land in foggy conditions at the nation’s primary airports.
He said other technology, like the Ground Based Augmentation System, was also likely to improve airline safety as it is rolled out across the country over the coming two decades.
“An ILS on the day of that fog event would have allowed an approach and landing to be made without any safety issues to be raised,” he said.
“In these decisions, governments will make a cost-benefit analysis and there is a cost.
“I don’t know if it’s into the hundreds of thousands or the millions.
“Mildura is quite strategically situated between Adelaide and Melbourne so it does have that benefit. It would be useful to have that upgraded navigational capacity and, who knows, one day aircraft like the 737s might operate to Mildura.”
Mr Nixon agreed Australia was behind the times when it came to airport infrastructure but said the circumstances the pilots found themselves in that foggy Mildura morning were not quite so rare.
“It’s not a one-in-a-million event – it happens every year,” he said.
“In the scungiest airports in third world countries, you can do ILS landings anywhere.
“At the time this was happening in Mildura, there was only one place in Australia you could land in fog and that was Melbourne runway 16.
“In this situation, it would’ve been safer for everyone if they just did autolands in Adelaide with enough fuel on board.
“If you are going to break the law to get in, after everything has conspired against you, do it early, safely, when you have fuel.
“It’s stressful enough to do an auto land at a huge airport you know intimately, without having to go to an airport you’ve never been to and have the added stress of no fuel left.”
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