Serious deficiencies in Qantaslink are understood to have been drawn to the attention of the forthcoming Senate inquiry into pilot training and standards.

Three incidents are involved:

  1. The 3.6 g hard landing of a Qantaslink 717 of a Darwin on February 7, 2008 which required the substantial reconstruction of part of the jet.
  2. The near double stall of a Qantaslink Q300 on approach to Sydney Airport of December 26, 2008, in which a trainee first officer disobeyed the instructions of the captain, and
  3. The July 14, 2009 incident at the Ayers Rock airstrip in which a Boeing 717 was mishandled by two pilots who had not been trained to fully understand the behaviour of the autopilot system at low speeds.

Pilot training issues were specifically raised although briefly by the ATSB in its final reports into these incidents. In the Ayers Rock airstrip incident the pilots reported problems in maintaining low level airspeed to the safety investigator which they believed were caused by a malfunction but which the ATSB found to have been caused by lack of awareness of autopilot mode changes in a low speed situation.

This is an extraordinary disclosure concerning an airline Qantas insists meets all of its standards of excellence and ought to be the cause of both alarm and action in Qantas and the safety regulator CASA.

Qantaslink subsequently made a number of changes to its 717 manuals. The ATSB report evades any consideration of how such a situation could have ever arisen in the training of pilots on a medium sized jet used in Australia, just as it failed to explain how a first officer told to abort an approach by a Qantaslink turbo-prop to Sydney Airport ignored the instruction and pressed on with the landing attempt until the captain prevailed.

In each of these cases the public wasn’t told what was said between the safety investigator and CASA and Qantas or the different operations that fly under its Qantaslink regional air services brand.

It is a reasonable proposition that the ATSB is more mindful of the commercial interests of the airline in question than informing the public about how these serious and exceptional lapses occurred, and what safety lessons have been learned, and what actions have been taken by Qantaslink to minimise or eliminate the risk of their happening again.

On Friday, in a statement of concern to the Senate inquiry, the Australian and International Pilots Association drew attention to the risks of Generation Y pilots with little actual flying experience gaining command positions with airlines in which the management is now run by MBAs trying to make their mark as cost cutters oblivious to the sometimes dangerous consequences for safety standards.

The statement to the inquiry, moved by independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon, criticised third party training providers used by the airlines as being compromised by the pressure to get pilots with inadequate experience into cockpits to feed air travel growth and detailed a number of risky scenarios involving low time first officers or P-platers and captains who were also being promoted with low hours of experience.

The Xenophon call for an inquiry was prompted by the US reaction to the crash of a Q400 turboprop at Buffalo in 2009 in which two poorly trained and fatigued pilots lost control of the turbo-prop, killing 50 people.

The Federal Aviation Administration subsequently brought in far higher standards of actual hands on flying experience as a hiring requirement for scheduled airline pilots, an initiative which will be examined by the Senate inquiry.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW