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Weather CASA Learns

Weather CASA Learns

It was said by a wise old aviator that when a pilot first qualifies or gets a professional licence he is given two bags. One is marked ‘luck’ and is fairly full, the other is marked ‘experience’ and it is empty. The trick for the pilot is to fill the bag marked ‘experience’ before the bag marked ‘luck’ runs out.

The pilots in the Lockhart River accident had insufficient experience to temper their actions before the luck in the bag ran out. Where does CASA come into that equation you may ask? To explain why CASA have failed as a regulator requires a consideration of the focus of that bureaucracy to understand why some pilots are not transitioning from requiring a lot of luck to being experienced enough to prevent a fatal accident.

Whilst the use of check lists and standard operating procedures are useful props in the planning, performance and completion of a successful flight, these tools must be tempered by the development of practical experience to ensure safe flying. A great deal of operations are susceptible to danger. This is not news to pilots. Pilots are human beings and, as such, make mistakes. CASA seems to delight in finding these mistakes after the event and then hounding the pilot out of the industry during a criminal trial when, instead, he could learn from his errors and be a better pilot in the long run. Examples may help.

Airline night operations into Mackay airport in winter are not something that seems to be out of the ordinary. Yet it was common knowledge amongst airline crews in my day that prudent pilots carried TSV as an alternate between March and September, irrespective of the weather forecast published. Mackay airport in winter is subject to sea fogs that roll in unexpectedly and randomly. When the fog closes Mackay it sometimes closes Rockhampton as well. By word of mouth, prudence demanded TSV as an alternate. On occasion, some pilots acted on the published forecast and when they scraped into either RK or perhaps TSV, with less than the statutory reserves in their tanks and their hearts beating faster than usual, experience taught them to carry extra fuel for such an eventuality. No check list or standard operating procedure was published by CASA or its predecessors about the matter. Paddy O’Brien in an emergency helicopter service operation was confronted with this phenomenon. Both MK and RK closed due to fog in winter and he did not have sufficient fuel to scrape into a paddock. He paid with his life and those of his passengers. He was not alerted to the problem. CASA did not do its job in overseeing a risk and alerting pilots.

Most airline pilots are aware of two freak weather phenomena prevailing in Sydney and Perth airport areas. Sydney’s freak is called a ‘southerly buster’ and Perth’s is called a ‘cockeyed Bob’. Yet CASA do not allude to either of these freak weather problems. In the early 60’s, an Ansett Viscount went in due to a severe low pressure area in the Botany Bay Heads area. The weather bureau cannot predict when one of these freaks will occur. The problem is a very localised low pressure cell about three to five miles off the end of Runway 25 or Runway 16. I experienced the Sydney cell first hand and it warrants recounting because little is said about it by the regulator.

After an overnight in Canberra, yours truly attended flight planning for a flight to Sydney at about 7:30 am. The weather was forecast 8/8th blue; no wind to speak of. The companion Ansett crew were at flight planning. The Ansett captain had tired eyes as he was old and had seen it all before. He led in the air race to Sydney. On descent and whilst swapping frequencies, I heard the same Ansett skipper mouthing off to the effect that he was experiencing severe, repeat, severe turbulence and strong cross winds on runway 25 and he expressed the view that the airport should be closed. I was the only one that heard the transmission: the first officer was still swapping his radio and the flight engineer was speaking on the third VHF to TAA on the ground. Ahead, the weather at my height was perfect and there seemed to be a cloud layer without buildups at about 4,000 feet. From an eyeball view nothing supported the outburst of the Ansett captain.Experience caused me to accept that the Ansett captain knew what he was talking about rather than believing the weather forecast and what my eyes were telling me. I then proceeded to button the aircraft up for severe turbulence, telling the senior hostie to be prepared for a rough ride. Being one of the Sydney battleaxes and seeing the vista ahead she questioned my judgment. My instructions prevailed and she closed the buffet down and distributed the hostesses about the aircraft with spare sick bags.

The aircraft was rigged for turbulent operations as per the standard operating procedures. We entered the strata form clouds at 4,100 feet and it was smooth sailing. At 3,700 feet the ailerons of the B727 went from full throw left to full throw right in about one second. The nose started to drop about 20 degrees nose down and the aircraft started to gyrate alarmingly. The trim started to try to stabilise the aircraft to an IAS of 270 knots. The aircraft on autopilot was starting to explore the limits of control in both the longitudinal and lateral planes. It was not a good look. Glancing through the clouds, I observed a nautical freighter entering Botany Bay and large containers were being shed over the side of the vessel due to the state of the sea. I flicked the autopilot out at 3,500 feet. The INS recorded the wind as 185/65kts. At 4,000 feet the wind was 230/5. Clearly I had taken the aircraft into a maelstrom of danger that was not forecast or expected. The flight from that point on went from bad to worse.

On late final, the airspeed was fluctuating between 210 Kts and 200 kts. After extending two of flap the speed fluctuated between 260 knots and 180kts. These were extreme limits for flap settings. The risk was slow speed stall because of being too slow and damage to the extended flap for excess speed. After getting the gear extended and about 15 flaps extended, the aircraft was still displaying both the high and low speed stall characteristics. The aircraft started to sink at about 2,500 feet per minute. Full power to the SOP limit merely slowed the rate of descent to 1,500 feet per minute and still the stall characteristics prevailed. The nose of the aircraft was about three to five degrees nose up.

No check list or SOP presented readily to mind to correct what was a very dangerous approach. Ultimately the choice presented itself between putting the aircraft down in the East Lakes golf course and sliding through the car park that is the General Holmes Drive at 8:30 am or attempting a go round. The power levers were shoved right forward in to the overspeed range, i.e. 103% power. The gear was retracted and at about 500 feet and two miles short of the runway, the aircraft started to accelerate upwards. We headed back to Canberra again. The Ansett B727 skipper had managed to land and had damaged his undercarriage in doing so.

What did CASA do about it? Absolutely nothing. Look in any of the publications relating to Sydney airport and there is nothing mentioned about the southerly buster phenomenon. CASA are missing in action.

Perth has a similar problem. A severe turbulence storm, not based on thunderstorms or the like, occurs randomly. Yet little is published about this intermittant difficulty. Late in my time in TAA, management hit on an accountant’s delight. Management worked out that carrying reserves over and above the statutory ones was not cost effective and encouraged captains to go to Perth with about 6,000 lbs of fuel in a B727. It can be done, but the speed of the circular slide rule throughout the flight is pretty to watch when a howgoesit chart is being calculated, with a PNR 80 nms short of Kalgoorlie. In good weather it works. When a cockeyed Bob appears, as it did for one unfortunate skipper who required two approaches to land in howling crosswinds, the crew’s grasp on life slipped somewhat. The alternative was to put it into the Swan river and hope the passengers could both evacuate and swim. This incident has been presented to CASA and ignored in a less than helpful comment.

It is alleged that an accountant’s view of fuel control prevailed in the Jogjakata accident recently, as captains were offered bonuses for fuel savings. Those Indonesian pilots ignored experience and trusted to luck and 21 persons lost their lives.

One could list many other glaring risk factors that could be addressed by CASA in the charter and commuter worlds to render that sector safer.

As a lawyer now, when dealing with CASA, the predominant focus of that august body seems to be on paper work.Dealing with the organisation is a nightmare. Regulations are convoluted and seem to be promulgated for the purpose of protecting the bureaucracy and the Minister from criticism. The practical has been lost in the many revamps and reorganizations. If the paperwork is complete, in infinite detail, it is accepted that the operation is safe. I suggest that the operator in the Lockhart River incident kept the paperwork to a fair standard, but the practicalities of ensuring each captain adhered to a stabilized approach, that the first officer had sufficient experience to discern an unstable approach and was not encouraged to alert the captain were not adhered to. It is also necessary to ensure that sufficient checking by the regulator is done on the line to ensure safe procedures are encouraged. This was not done regularly by CASA in this case. The chief pilot was overworked and may not have been able to see the risks present.

Late in my time with TAA, I attended a check and training conference: management believed that concentrated training for perceived breaches is much more beneficial to a pilot than dismissal or similar. As one of the management pilots put it, “After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on getting a pilot to a high degree of skill as an airline captain, if he can be jolted mentally into accepting his defects and adopting a safer flying attitude he is a better pilot, the airline is safer and the industry is enhanced”.

The upshot of this focus on criminal and administrative activity by CASA is to take the pilot and the engineer out of the industry in disgrace rather than to correct behaviour to make the operative a better person. Little wonder that pilots and engineers are loath to speak to CASA about the most minor of matters, lest they find themselves defending a criminal charge that carries greater penalties than mainstream crime.

Will CASA change? Your correspondent doubts it. It will be a bit like turning the USS Eisenhower into wind. The probable scenario will be that a public inquiry will be held: bland and tinkering recommendations will be made; the principal officers of CASA will resign for ‘family reasons’; a new logo will be devised, a new set of values will be espoused and a new mission statement will be framed and the same old irrelevant culture, based on paperwork, will continue. I hope I am wrong with that future prognostication.

Watch this space …

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