Mildura emergency raises air safety concerns

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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