A scary incident at the Jundee mine in WA last month has added a lack of pilot training flight simulators to the failings of safety infrastructure in rural and resource industry air services.
On 26 June two pilots with comparatively little experience in handling the twin turboprop Embraer 120 they were operating had an engine shutdown at low speed just as they were about to land at the gold mine.
The aircraft with 28 people on board lurched to one side and appeared close to disaster when it recovered and was then inexplicably flown a further 40 kilometres to a safe landing at Wiluna.
The incident poses a range of pilot training and checking issues for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau which is making it the subject of its biggest investigation since the 2005 Lockhart River disaster which killed 15 people aboard another small turboprop.
In that crash the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has admitted to prior knowledge that the pilot and his airline Transair had a disregard for air safety procedures and requirements but did nothing to inform the public or effectively force the carrier to comply with its safety obligations.
Australia has no Embraer 120 flight simulators in which crises, like an unexpected engine shut down at low speed and close to the ground, can be rehearsed.
However the manufacturer and the certification processes for the work horse commuter plane implicitly assume that operators will use flight simulators to keep their pilots “current”, as is normal for all of the aircraft flown by Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue.
But in Australia, small operators like Skippers Aviation, which serves the Newmont Jundee mine, would have to send pilots abroad to do their check sessions, and the cost of a dedicated company simulator runs into millions of dollars that they simply can’t generate in the impoverished economics of small regional operations in this country.
Carrying out such exercises in a real aircraft is considered so risky that they are no longer performed, in part because of a long history of simulated emergencies causing crashes in Australia and abroad in airliners of all sizes in the past.
So while Transport Minister Mark Vaile argues in Cabinet for subsidised flying schools to overcome a serious shortage of pilots in Australia, he also has to factor in the dismal reality that in this country, the small airlines can’t even afford the flight simulator sessions that underwrite the safety skills of pilots elsewhere in the developed world.