The Australian role in the official inquiry into the Airlines PNG crash that killed nine Australians on Tuesday as they were about to start the Kokoda Track walk is going to be incredibly difficult.
The team sent there from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) appear to have very little factual data it can rely upon, and massive sensitivities to deal with.
All that it knows is that the pilots broke off a landing approach close to the Kokoda strip in poor visibility, that the captain Jenny Moala told air traffic control they had decided to climb, and were climbing, and that within a few minutes and with no further contact the twin engined turbo prop had flown into a jungle covered slope.
Kokoda is 400 metres above sea level, and the impact occurred at 1700 metres near the village of Isurava within minutes. At the outset, PNG doesn’t thoroughly investigate air crashes. The bodies are extracted sometimes, a short report may eventually appear, and nothing that might improve safety standards ever happens. It is all a matter of look the other way. Nor does PNG have the trained personnel or the money to do an air crash investigation.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
But in the current case, Australia is providing the money and the expertise, but has to be continually respectful of the fact that this is a PNG investigation, and PNG will oversee everything, including the release of information. It is not known if the turbo-prop Twin Otter was equipped with data and voice recorders.
Airlines PNG isn’t returning calls and the rule that makes them mandatory cuts in just above the weight of the Twin Otter, but sometimes carriers fit them with recorders anyhow, or lease them from companies that insist on their being used.
Nor is it known with certainty if the aircraft had a navigational device with GPS referenced mapping displays and a ground proximity warning device fitted. Some Twin Otters have them, some don’t, and there is a suggestion that the Garmin GNS 530 package with terrain warning was installed on this plane. But if so, how much would it have helped? Pilots consider GPS based systems unreliable in the confines and signal tracking limitations of the complex mountain terrain of PNG.
If there was such a unit on this aircraft it is probably badly smashed, because they are not hardened like standard “black boxes” to withstand the force of a crash.
One of the potentially sensitive areas of inquiry will be the relative skills of the two pilots. The captain is reported as being 26 year old Jannie Moala, with only six months flying time on the Twin Otter, while the first officer was the more experienced Royden Sauka, 31, reported as having many times her hours on twin engined types.
Does Airlines PNG train and assess pilots in terms of their interaction in the cockpit, as most scheduled passenger airlines do? Is the airline’s culture, if it has one, up to speed on the sensitivities of a senior male being under the command of a junior female?
Airlines PNG doesn’t just fly small aircraft into tough jungle airstrips. It has Dash 8 turbo-props flying to larger ports in PNG with better runways and much safer approaches than Kokoda, including Popondetta, which while some distance from Kokoda might be worthy of consideration as the entry airport with a long day’s road trip to get to the start the track, and would allow visits to other war time sites associated with the Japanese invasion, which approached from this direction.
If the ATSB assists PNG in the manner in which it would inquire into an Australian accident, it will dissect the airline’s training procedures, its checking processes, its flight manuals, and its operating procedures including those for doing go-arounds at Kokoda, a strip where the more common answer to persistent bad weather is to return to Port Moresby.
PNG is so totally different to Australia in its use of air transport that crashes are inevitable. In terms of its widespread use, the number of crashes actually seem quite low. And general piloting culture in PNG seems remarkably high under all the circumstances. Yet Airlines PNG, in either its past guise as Milne Bay Airlines, or in the present, looks well below par, and has now killed at least 57 people and nothing but a thorough accounting for this disaster is going to accepted by the country paying for the inquiry.