The fatal crash of a small jet on a Milne Bay airstrip in PNG yesterday afternoon is believed to have killed Les Wright, a pilot and aviation entrepreneur, who was at the centre of recriminations arising from the Transair disaster in far northern Queensland on May 7, 2005.

In the Australian crash, all 15 people aboard a small turboprop commuter flight died when it flew into a hill while approaching the Lockhart River airstrip in poor weather.

The subsequent investigation and coronial inquest found fault with Wright’s performance as chief pilot and co-owner of Transair, as well as CASA’s oversight of the operation, and led to Transair being prosecuted for multiple serious breaches of Australian safety regulations and surrendering its air operator certificate and going into liquidation.

Wright subsequently set up Trans Air New Guinea, again as co-owner and as a senior pilot.  At about 4pm yesterday, Trans Air’s Cessna Citation II jet landed hard on the Misima Island strip in the Milne Bay province in heavy rain and failed to slow down before slamming into a grove of palm trees and breaking up in flames.

Their were three Australian and one New Zealander fatalities and one survivor, a New Zealand co-pilot who was found in a swamp and taken in a serious condition to a local hospital. Wright is understood to have occupied the other pilot seat.

The only victim officially named so far is Chris Hart, a 61-year-old maritime pilot from Sydney, who was about to meet and guide a large vessel through Great Barrier Reef waters. The dead were all trapped inside the burning cabin section of the wreckage, according to Port Moresby reports.

Earlier this year Trans Air won an appeal against a CASA refusal to permit it to carry out medical evacuations to Australia and other aerial work in this country using its PNG-issued air operator certificate.

Before being put out of business as Transair in Australia, Les Wright defended its operations, telling the ABC radio program PM: “We’ve never ever had a safety alert. They’ve (CASA) just raised concerns over procedures and policy and whatnot.”

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau says it is ready to assist PNG authorities in an investigation of the Trans Air crash, if requested. The ATSB played a major support role into the early inquiry into the crash last August 11 of a PNG Airlines Twin Otter turbo-prop on approach to the Kokoda strip, killing 13 people including nine Australians  who were planning to walk the Kokoda track.

PNG subsequently suspended the inquiry and its status is unclear.

Meanwhile, in a serious incident that ended without injury, a Qantas 747-400 experienced an “uncontained” engine failure after leaving San Francisco for Sydney last night with 212 passengers.

The jet turned back when the explosive rupture occurred at 30,000 feet, and the delayed passengers are about to continue their flights on another Qantas jet from Los Angeles.

This appears to have been the first instance of an uncontained failure in flight of an RB211 jet engine, which is a widely used Rolls-Royce power plant. The Qantas flight appears to have been fortunate in that the debris from the explosive break up was ejected away from the airliner and not into it. Jet engines are designed and certified not to experience uncontained failures, which means that the US investigation into this incident is of major interest to many airlines worldwide.