Remember the light plane that crashed near Canley Vale Primary School last June, killing the pilot and a nurse as it tried to return to Sydney’s Bankstown aerodrome?

It was run by a company called Avtex Air Services Pty Ltd and along with its associate company Skymaster Air Services, Avtex has now been exposed for having an appalling record of unsafe practices by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Pilot bullying, deliberate rule breaking and corner cutting were amongst the unsafe practice allegations.

The tribunal has dismissed an appeal by Avtex against the cancellation of its air operator certificate by the safety regulator, CASA, back on August 20 last year.

And in doing so, it has put on record one of the most comprehensive indictments of the standards of a general aviation charter operation yet detailed in a privileged document.

The Piper light aircraft, a PA-31P,  was heading north from Sydney and close to the Richmond Air Force Base when it ran into engine trouble, and attempted to make it back to its base rather than declare an emergency and land at the military airfield, which was nearby but experiencing poor visibility.

By the time the pilot was asking Bankstown control about his options, with the M7 motorway one of the suggestions, it was too late and it found power lines close to the school and crashed in a fireball on a suburban road.

CASA cancelled the operator certificates relied upon by Avtex and Skymaster on the grounds that Avtex (which used Skymaster for its piston engine operations) was a serious and imminent risk to air safety.

As the tribunal finding makes clear, it had been for years.

This was an outfit that insisted pilots “go up and have a look” when the rules prohibited flight into known icing conditions. Its maintenance, fatigue risk, rostering procedures and general safety issues management were derisory and contrary to purpose and intentions of the regulations.

The document relates pressure on named pilots to fly down valley from Cooma to Sydney on visual flight rules as low as 500 feet above ground to keep freight customers happy by getting their products delivered, and as a consequent benefit, avoid navigational charges in controlled air space.

The Avtex decision, which has enraged some of the cowboys in the industry, judging from a torrid private discussion between this reporter and one of them this morning, is a reflection of a bigger issue, which is the wafer thin viability of third tier, charter and general aviation operations in general.

A valid but ugly point made by that sector is that there is no money in it, and that the meetings at which pilots are ‘coached’ as to why not fly into icing conditions doesn’t mean they can’t fly into them to have “a look”  is a survival tactic for many such struggling businesses.

Yet this notion, that breaking the law is a necessity in Australian aviation, is obnoxious, and this decision is very important in exposing it.

In this case neither the company, nor the pilot and nurse, were to be survivors in a game that as it stands, will destroy all of the general aviation players in this country in their entirety within a decade or two.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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