After droning on for minutes about how Qantas’s safety “is our number one concern”, its CEO Alan Joyce was rattled before a Senate inquiry into pilot and airline training this morning by the disclosure that CASA had written a letter of demand to Qantas concerning 15 stick-shaker incidents in the Dash 8 turbo prop fleet flown by its Qantaslink subsidiary.

After a barely audible conference with his entourage, Joyce confirmed “there has been a number of stick-shaker events on our Q400s”, which is the largest member of the Dash 8 family with 72 seats, and used on many of the flights politicians take to Canberra.

The disclosure of the letter was made by SA independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who instigated the current inquiry.

In a disjointed response, Joyce said “there are a number … the number depends on the type of stick-shaker event … (inaudible) …”

Joyce said he would take the issue of the stick-shaker events on notice.

Xenophon said the press hadn’t reported on any of the these events. In fact Crikey and Plane Talking did report on a clumsy attempt by the ATSB to play down two of these events on the same Qantaslink flight into Sydney airport from Moree on December 26, 2008, but they occurred in a 50-seat version of the Dash 8.

In its report into that incident, the ATSB disclosed how the first officer of  the flight disobeyed the instructions of his captain to abandon an unstable approach and go around, resulting in two stick-shaker events within 10 seconds.

Despite the mealy mouthed language of the ATSB report, that incident revealed a grossly unsafe breakdown of piloting  culture in the cockpit of an Australian airliner.

The report was, as usual, ignored in the general media, which is as captive of the commercial interests of Qantas as it would appear the ATSB is in terms of the political sensitivities of its inquiries into a national icon.

A stick shaker event occurs when the control systems of an airliner detect that the airspeed has fallen dangerous close to stalling speed at times, including a landing approach, when it should have been higher.  The “stick” or control column physically vibrates in the pilot’s hands to add to other warnings of the unsafe speed.

The director of the ATSB, Martin Dolan, is due to appear before the inquiry this afternoon.  A burning question for Dolan is whether or not these stick-shaking events were reportable matters, whether they were in fact reported, and whether the ATSB is investigating them, and why?

Earlier in the session Senator Xenophon took Joyce to task over his claim that media reports (in fact one in Crikey) had not led to the ATSB inquiring into the near crash of a Jetstar A320 on approach to a fog-bound runway at Melbourne Airport on July 21, 2007.

Xenophon chided Joyce that he might be re-inventing history, and referred him to the ATSB report that specifically credited the inquiry to media reports.  Joyce then backtracked, claiming in a somewhat confused set of responses, that Jetstar had picked up the incident through the strength of its internal reporting system, but did not at first  pick up the fact that the  jet fell to less than 10 metres above the ground with its ground proximity warning device loudly alerting two confused pilots of the predicament they were in because Jetstar had earlier illegally changed the standard operating procedures for a missed approach.

Joyce said that when Jetstar did realise this had happened, it made what he called “a mistake” in thinking that earlier information it had passed to the ATSB fulfilled its reporting requirements.

Unfortunately, the time allocated to Joyce’s appearance, supported by current Jetstar group CEO Bruce Buchanan, expired before the committee members could ask about how Jetstar decided to improperly alter the missed approach procedures for its A320s and thus imperil the lives of about 140 people, a decision it hastily reversed after the incident, thanks to Crikey, became notorious.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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