The Milne Bay crash that killed three Australians and a New Zealander in PNG on Tuesday has also exposed serious concerns about CASA’s handling of Trans Air’s operations and anger about the allegedly poor performance of some of the parties involved in Australian investigations into the Kokoda disaster last year.
While the ATSB has agreed to a PNG invitation to assist in its investigation at the site where the operator’s Citation II jet crashed off the runway on Misima Island, its involvement is being kept at levels Port Moresby considers appropriate to an aviation accident rather than a political circus.
Information given to Crikey says that a massive and costly inquiry by Australian authorities — including the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts as well as the ATSB, CASA and DFAT — into the crash of a PNG Airlines Twin Otter while descending toward the Kokoda airstrip on August 11 last year produced a report so badly flawed that it was withdrawn without a detailed release after the PNG authorities objected to what they regarded as factual errors and mistakes within it.
That crash killed 13 people including nine Australians about to embark on the Kokoda Track walk. An official and detailed PNG report into the tragedy is in preparation for public release on a date to be announced.
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The anger in Port Moresby over CASA’s alleged ‘persecution’ of Trans Air and one of its co-owners, Les Wright, who died in Tuesday’s crash is not about Wright’s numerous offences against Australian safety regulations while chief pilot and part owner of the earlier Transair, which went out of business after the crash of its Metroliner turbo-prop while approaching Lockhart River in far northern Queensland on May 7, 2005, killing all 15 people on board.
Rather it is about a perceived vendetta against the PNG Trans Air operation, in which Wright had no role in its management of safety, and which officials in Port Moresby saw as an attempt by CASA to deflect blame for its complicity in the Lockhart River crash.
To summarise from privileged documents, the ATSB in its inquiry in the 2005 crash blamed inadequate and ineffective CASA oversight of Wright and Transair as a contributing factor, in that if CASA had done its job the accident would never have happened. These claims, subsequently pursued by the relatives of the Lockhart River dead through Senate committee hearings into CASA and aired in a coronial inquest, are well supported.
The CASA ‘vendetta’ against Wright and Trans Air failed after the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in January reversed the regulator’s refusal to issue a certificate of approval for its medical evacuation and related flight activities between PNG and Australia. Those flights used the same jet that was destroyed on Tuesday after it was observed to aquaplane off the Misima Island airstrip in heavy rain and crash into trees.
Wright is now dead, and following the comments about him and Trans Air made yesterday by CASA, which sough to leverage positive spin on its failures to deal with Transair in 2005, so is its reputation in PNG.