The increased frequency of serious incidents makes this a legitimate question, with an alarming preliminary report just being issued by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau into a real heart stopper by a Skippers Aviation turbo-prop Embraer 120 with 31 people on board at WA’s Jundee mine on June 26.

There has never been such a proliferation of “near things” in Australian aviation.

The highlights of this sequence include:-

  • Jetstar making two missed approaches in fog to Melbourne in an A320 that came within 20 feet of the ground in because the wheels were down when they should have been up during the first attempt and for reasons yet to be resolved, the jet then failed to behave as intended as it positioned itself for a second attempted landing before diverting to Avalon.
  • Another Jetstar flight departing Avalon using the wrong radio frequency when the dangers of this were compounded by a control tower left unmanned to cut costs, even though one million passengers are expected to use it in the next year.
  • Qantas calling Mayday on approach to a suddenly foggy Perth airport after missing two approaches and then making an illegal and risky autoland at the airport, which is not certified for such a procedure, because the only other option was ditching in the sea.
  • Qantas departing Launceston without the runway lights being on, and spending around half a million dollars on legal fees to date to contest continuing efforts by the CDDP to prosecute the pilots for a prima facie breach of aviation safety laws five years after the event.
  • CASA failing to warn the public about its awareness of unsafe flying being done by Transair and being incapable of effectively regulating the operation prior to the death of all 15 people on board a flight that crashed into a hill approaching the Lockhart River strip.
  • The Jundee mine incident, which is under continued investigation but has already caused the ATSB to warn small turbo prop operators to review fuel management policies and say that it knows of two other incidents involving commuter sized aircraft in which procedural errors resulted in incorrect calculations of the fuel actually remaining in their tanks.

In its preliminary report into the Jundee incident the ATSB describes how the two pilots flying the Skippers Aviation service were taken by surprise by one of the engines running out of fuel moments before an intended landing, and how both had to apply their full strength to the controls to correct a steep left hand bank, amid stall and ground proximity warnings, as the aircraft floundered at low speed and low altitude.

What is going on in air safety regulation in this country? Why is an such an unprecedented string of fuel emergencies, instances of questionable flight standards and incidents involving such basics as the manning of control towers taking place?

When does the luck run out? The minister, Mark Vaile, who will soon be in the radio silence of caretaker mode, was forced last week to demand answers to question he should never have had to ask to rattle a secret internal Jetstar review of its latest bungle into the arms of an ATSB investigation where it should have been the day after it happened, nearly two months earlier.

Whoever takes on air transport after the election may have very little if any time in which to act decisively to break the corporate capture of air transport safety administration by the airlines before somebody breaks a jet.