It says much about media courage and focus that the crash of a light plane in suburban Sydney yesterday has received far more attention than a recent ATSB investigation into the flight of a much larger QantasLink turbo-prop that nearly stalled twice in 10 seconds approaching the main airport after a first officer disobeyed his captain’s instructions to abort the landing of the 50-passenger aircraft.

It is also insightful that while the ATSB has shut down questions about its failure to prosecute Jetstar for breaches of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 in relation to its covering up a dangerously botched approach to Melbourne Airport in 2007, it has allowed its investigator of yesterday’s crash to do live media and provide a brief commentary on the circumstances of the accident.

There has been more ATSB media about this light aircraft crash than incidents involving much larger scheduled airliners.

Why?

Of course the light plane crash is tragic and important and relevant to community safety in relation to light or general aviation operations. The pilot and a nurse died when it came down in Canley Vale in the morning peak hour, close to a school, a school bus stop, and tragically for the two dead, metres away from the open spaces of Adams Park.

Sydney has two large general aviation airports, Bankstown and Camden, where density of traffic movements can be much higher than the regimented and precision spaced separation of airliners at Kingsford Smith. And they inevitably involve a plethora of flight paths that private and learner pilots, and small aviation enterprises, will use in flying across or near suburban rooftops, shopping centres and schools.

Without prejudice to the operator of the light aircraft that crashed, the small scale end of aviation is less safe despite using comparatively less complex and slower flying aircraft that the big end, flying faster and vastly more complex airliners.

The key factor can be argued to be the piloting environment and operational support.

Again, with no prejudice to the dead pilot, who by reputation was a fine one too, small end pilots fly alone, not as a team of two pilots where emergencies are trained for according to a division and prioritisation of flying functions between captain and first officer. Even, in theory, in a QantasLink cockpit.

Each airliner flying in Australia occupies the professional attention of about 85 airline employees. At the level of small aircraft non-scheduled and private flights, such consistent intensity of operational management doesn’t exist.

What will be done to make general aviation airports safer? There are sensible changes to operational procedures that were recently introduced by CASA. But they apply to the orderly use of the air space.

Yesterday’s crash was not about orderly everyday flight. It was about trying to get a crippled aircraft back to Bankstown, back to its own hangar for repairs, but the houses and power lines rose up to meet it, and destroy it.

Peter Fray

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