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INVESTIGATION: Our scary skies

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Alarm bells: A commercial jet in the skies above Queenstown
Official warnings high­light serious Queenstown aviation risks – and a veteran pilot fears a disaster is inevitable unless changes are made. 

A recent Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report into a mid-air incident over Queenstown contains chilling warnings about “system drift” and rising risk levels at the resort’s increasingly busy airport. 

The TAIC report – examining why Pacific Blue and Qantas jets came to be on a potential collision course – heavily criticises both the Civil Aviation Authority and tower operator Airways Corporation. 

TAIC tells CAA and Airways “evidence of system drift suggests a review of [Queenstown’s] entire air traffic management system and operational procedures could be timely”. 

“Unintended adverse effects on system safety and performance [mean] it’s likely the level of risk with flight operations at Queenstown has increased because of changes in the variety and intensity of operations,” TAIC says. 

Government-funded TAIC does not mount inquiries lightly, only holding them after incidents or accidents when its officials believe lessons or improvements to transport safety might result. 

A senior airline captain – who can’t be named because his employment contract prohibits media comment – believes the TAIC call is unprecedented. 

“It’s very unsettling it’s left to TAIC, as a result of a very serious incident, to be taking steps to initiate such a review.” 

The veteran pilot warns that if safety issues identified by TAIC aren’t dealt with, “threat levels will remain very high” and “a catastrophic event is a matter of when not if”. 

TAIC released its report into the June 2010 mid-air incident last month but the revelations about systemic problems have largely gone unnoticed – until now. 

According to TAIC’s report, “the investigation also identified some safety issues that had been suspected or recognised by the industry prior to this incident but not adequately defined or resolved”. 

The 40-page report cites copious safety issues, among them: 

  • Pacific Blue pilots didn’t “correctly assess [weather] conditions” – landing was “marginal” 
  • Pilots of all airlines “routinely” break aviation law with their circling approaches – TAIC slams Airways, CAA and the airlines for “tacit acceptance of non-compliant procedures [which] create an unsafe precedent”
  • CAA and Airways are also criticised for introducing “right-hand circuits” – aviation’s equivalent to driving on the wrong side of the road – without formal approval.
  •  “A potential safety issue” arose from “confusion” between Pacific Blue’s pilot and Queenstown tower – because controllers expected the jet to manoeuvre differently
  •  There was an “information gap” over names of navigation points, with Pacific Blue pilots left wondering where in the sky the Qantas jet was
  • TAIC also notes the flight controller on duty during the mid-air incident had 10 months’ experience and was doing on-the-job training with her instructor – who took over mid-way through the incident
  • A blind spot behind Deer Park Heights prevents pilots and controllers from seeing weather conditions down the lake – “a safety issue that needs to be resolved”
  •  “Hazardous” inconsistencies between flight manuals of Airways, CAA and airlines are “likely to lead to misunderstandings between pilots and air traffic controllers” – CAA is specifically blamed for not checking the accuracy and conformity of manuals. 

TAIC says a likely increase in “level of risk” at Queenstown is due to the airport’s massive growth – international aircraft movements increased 524 per cent and domestic by 17 per cent from 2000-10.

Also read: Airways, CAA 'on notice'

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