Dick Smith might have been barred from giving evidence into the coronial inquest into the death of six people in a light aircraft crash near Benalla in July 2004, but that hasn’t stopped all possible causes of the tragedy being debated.
While the complexities of the accident may only be of interest to the families of the victims and the aviation community, the issue of Coroners ruling against evidence that could call into doubt, or alternatively augment, the accident investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau at the very outset is controversial.
Counsel assisting the Coroner in the Benalla inquest, John Langmead SC, has previously represented the ATSB.
In his opening address Langmead said “the ATSB is a repository of great expertise and it is that expertise that this inquest will have the benefit of and in my respectful submission this inquest ought not be permitted to become an investigation to vindicate or attack their … methods or the content of their report.”
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But why not? The ATSB in fact declared the reasons for the flight to have departed from its intended course an unsolved mystery. Smith, and others, claim that subsequent disclosures about an alleged flaws in the GPS navigation system used on that flight need to be fully pursued.
The system is in wide spread use in smaller aircraft.
In addition, Smith wants to make a suggestion to improve the safety of flights in similar situations to the one that crashed by providing them with minimum altitude alerts that could readily be generated from the existing air traffic control radar monitoring system.
There is a parallel in this inquest and the one conducted by the Queensland State Coroner. Michael Barnes, in August last year into the Transair crash near Lockhart River that killed 15 people.
The Queensland Coroner was assisted by Ian Harvey QC, who often acts for CASA, the air safety regulator, and a body that was scathingly criticised by the ATSB in its report into that accident.
Counsel with aviation experience are a small grioup, but these apparent conflicts are unfortunate, and do nothing to enhance public confidence in these difficult proceedings.