The irony of the following article was that it was published in the CASA Flight Safety online magazine on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Seaview tragedy…
Adrian Park reflects on the grim but important lessons from a watershed crash that happened 20 years ago
A little after midday, on Sunday 2 October 1994, an Aero Commander 690 operated by Seaview Air taxied for take-off from Williamtown, NSW, on a flight to Lord Howe Island. Eight passengers, including honeymooners and a family with two children, boarded the single-pilot aircraft. Unknown to the passengers, the pilot’s conscience, and the culture within which it breathed, had sealed their fate.
Half an hour later the 25-year-old pilot made a call on the company’s internal communications frequency: ‘I’ve lost it, Clive, I’ve lost it’, as the aircraft descended at high speed into the ocean. The chief pilot and manager of Seaview, who were on a separate company aircraft also flying to Lord Howe, heard the radio call but continued on, and after landing retired for the afternoon, apparently in good conscience, as Flight Service tried desperately to raise the missing aircraft. Nothing was found of it apart from two aerials, some cabin trim and seat cushions, a radio compartment panel and a section of wing insulation. There was no trace of the occupants.
Conscience is often portrayed as an internal compass providing true direction when other cues fail. To conduct oneself with an approving conscience, to pursue principles along a line of reason as ‘straight and clear as a ray of light’ (to quote the 18th century radical philosopher, Thomas Paine), seems a noble ambition.
The problem, especially in aviation safety, is that a ray of light is neither straight nor clear. It can be refracted, reflected, dispersed and warped. And what’s true for the metaphor is true for the subject: no person is an island; they exist within a continent of influences, compulsions and biases. They exist within culture. And culture has its own set of accepted values, behaviours and norms—each affirming, rebuking and modifying the thing we call conscience. In fact, by definition and by application, if culture is, as most definitions express it, ‘accepted values’ culture is conscience.
So, while ‘let your conscience be your guide’ seems like good advice, what guides your conscience? What cultural atmospherics are distorting that ‘straight and clear ray of light’?
How would culture influence your conscience in a small but busy aviation company where, as a newly licensed 25-year-old, you gladly accept a step-up pilot’s job? Applying the new guy’s old adage ‘eyes open, mouth shut’ you quietly refresh yourself on local procedures, aircraft technical matters and operations documentation. You’re excited about the opportunity and willing to make certain concessions to prove yourself—including long hours and low pay.
You like the new chief pilot though, and he seems to like you. You notice he doesn’t seem to worry too much about being overloaded and regularly does it himself—again ‘to get the job done’. Perhaps you have considered broaching the subject with the chief pilot. Perhaps you are worried about the implications of a ramp check and have finally worked up the courage to raise the issues when you and the other company pilots receive a memo from the chief pilot. The memo is advice on how to respond to the regulator when you or the other pilots are questioned regarding company misdemeanours. The advice is firstly to ‘plead ignorance’, and if that doesn’t work ‘plead contrition’. The memo wraps up with ‘… only use believable bullshit—you [pilots] appear dumb, shouldn’t be too hard …’
What is ‘guiding your conscience’ at this point? It might be, from fear of the regulator, ‘don’t breach the regs—it’s your licence if you get caught’. It might be, from a sense of professionalism, ‘come on, you know about airmanship—is this really appropriate?’ It might even be, when looking into the eyes of the passengers boarding your plane, ‘do they deserve all these safety deficiencies?’ But the dominant culture trumps all: the hand that signs the pay cheque gets the final say.
The cruel twist of culture and conscience on that day was this: the passengers had the least control, with the most to lose. They always do. But what if the consciences of the passengers had been informed? What if, somehow, the safety cards (a cruel misnomer in this case) really had provided a snapshot of the safety of the aircraft?
This is what they would have said …
It’s hard to imagine any passenger remaining on board after reading such a card. But of course the only information on the ‘safety’ cards was the normal emergency information.
When asked at the subsequent commission of inquiry why no alarm had been raised, the manager and chief pilot replied they were unaware anything serious had occurred. It appeared the chief pilot was now following his earlier advice on ‘how to handle the regulator’, except that now the bullshit was no longer believable.
Following is the transcript of the call between the chief pilot and the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC).
RCC: “… what are your thoughts on his comments ‘I’ve lost it with the vibration’? Lost control or lost …?”
In any case the commission bluntly stated:
The chief pilot and manager are lying … their failure to report was inexcusable. It was consistent with their having formed the view the aircraft had crashed … and there was nothing to be done … There was however a great deal to be done … elaborate search and rescue procedures have been established precisely because there is always the chance that somehow, miraculously, someone might survive.
Other cultures were distorted. The commission heard how a CAA officer warned his superior, in Canberra, about Seaview. His report was passed to a district manager, who the commission found was ‘furious at having been bypassed’ and ‘determined to thwart the inquiry’. This he did, ensuring only token efforts were made.
The commission would eventually ascribe responsibility for the accident to a ‘wanton operator and an incompetent and timid regulator’.
As the managers of Seaview deceived in an accumulation of ‘small’ things they—pre-accident at least—were merely following a line of reasoning that appeared as ‘straight and clear as a ray of light’. In the full words of Paine’s quote—more poignant in this context—‘he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.’ Seaview’s managers allowed their conscience to be their guide, but failed to see it was being guided by a complex and powerful array of biases that would eventually see nine lives lost.
If the lesson of Seaview Air can be condensed into a ‘bold-face item’ it should be this: for good or ill your culture is your conscience. Your organisational culture—your company’s shared ‘norms’ and shared assumptions are the value metric by which all other actions are measured. When the values are good and true they will be the atmosphere oxygenating conscience: when they are bad, they will suffocate conscience.
And when we consider the modern motifs of ‘safety systems’, ‘safety culture’ and ‘compliance’ the Seaview lesson has a sobering corollary: it is possible to have a system—even a safety system—and not be safe. Seaview had safety cards in its aircraft—but it wasn’t safe. Seaview had an early form of what could loosely be called a safety culture—but it wasn’t safe. Seaview was even tacitly compliant with the regulator (in as much as the regulator hadn’t shut them down), but it wasn’t safe. It is of little value to have a safety management system and be tacitly compliant without a good and true safety conscience, without a robust safety culture. The product must match the billboard. The story of Seaview Air is a cautionary tale deserving our full attention when next we gauge our own culture and conscience. Or the next time we fly.
Adrian Park is a pilot and safety manager with an east coast helicopter operator
Ben Sandilands also marked the passing of this auspicious occasion – of the Seaview 20th anniversary – with an article highlighting the passing strange parallels to the 5th anniversary of the PelAir cover-up, duck-up..err balls-up..whatever.. :
At a time when the Minister responsible for aviation safety, Warren Truss, appears to be invisible in relation to the shameful Pel-Air crash and its aftermath, it is worth remembering the Seaview disaster of 1994.
The pilot and eight passengers on the light aircraft died just over 20 years ago when it plunged into the sea on its way from Newcastle (Williamtown) to Lord Howe Island.
This is quite a remarkable article, both in its scholarship and ferocious style, and in its coming out under the auspices of CASA, since much of the criticism of Seaview and the safety regulator that it conveys might prompt readers to draw parallels with the 2009 Pel-Air crash, and the quite shocking performance of CASA, the ATSB, and this Minister and his predecessor Anthony Albanese in relation to these matters.
But the irony goes deeper. Current Minister Truss’s former coalition colleague John Sharp was the Aviation Minister who tabled the Seaview Commission of Inquiry report in Federal Parliament which found Seaview was “a slipshod, often wilfully non-compliant organisation in which breaches of regulations and unacceptable practices were . . .commonplace”.
It was in 2009 the same John Sharp as the deputy chair of REX, the owner of the Pel-Air operation, who told the media that there was “no plan B” if the corporate jet that was ditched in the sea near Norfolk Island passed the point of no return and found itself unable to land for refueling if the weather conditions deteriorated to the extent that this was no longer possible.
Mr Sharp’s indignation, concern, and with hindsight, it seems his hypocritical posturing, can be read in contemporary news reports such as this.
Now, in 2014, five years and one day after the Pel-Air crash, the lack of adequate regulations concerning the fueling of such oceanic air ambulance flights has not been remedied. The reform process in CASA is in as big if not bigger mess under Truss than it was under Albanese. Lots of words from Albanese, and fewer from Truss, but no material results from either.
Air safety regulation in Australia is a joke, and one that will backfire on the industry.
There is something very rotten in the administration of air safety in this country. And no-one seems to give a damn.
This was the comment from Karen Casey (aka Ziggychick…) to which Ben refers:
Kasey Nov 16, 2014 at 10:49 pm
Stumbling upon this article, reading and absorbing it. Checking out the MoU between CASA and the ATSB…the game of dodge. Cost lives, compromises safety, use of tax payer money for an inquiry. Bureaucrats squabbling in the name of avoiding any accountability. Yet they write the rules.
I scratch my head.
Truth and honesty trickle from the top. Have examples of strong leadership with “good will” happen yet?
I personally have not seen this displayed.
If the truth was just told from the start, perhaps history could have been different.
As I braced for death, slammed into the ocean, a Half-inflated life vest. Terrified of sharks, freezing, hurt, fighting to live with every piece of energy. Start to give up within after over an hour of treading water in an angry ocean as I held my patient close. She was brave and so was her husband. Deserved better treatment from our Government.
If I knew we were flying around the South Pacific, Ad-Hoc MedeVacs with many variables, unprotected with the correct oversight in place from thy ones who make the rules/law/, informed, I would not have flown.
I don’t know what category we were under or the AOC status for that flight.
I have it. A no brainier would have been to alert them.
No Law/Policy addressing International MedeVacs. High risk field, one would think.
No Law regarding above post ditching
No protection from an Authority with statutory rights from 1996 to today, which are being examined, closely.
Why would Ministers allow (both sides) for this to continue on?
Lawyers don’t fly planes and pilots don’t right rules.
Industry is voicing, so are ghosts of the past along with current, factual evidence which keeps bouncing off that dome.
The human element of consciousness from the Operator, CASA and the ATSB are all still questionable to this day., I believe.
That protective dome, allows the ones who write the rules to not be accountable. Ever. Stat
I would be very interested in an article regarding the same thought given to the management of the Pel-Air incident thus far.
Five, very long years. 18/11/2009
Good article. Thank you
Karen Casey Nov 19, 2014 at 12:28 am
I have no words to describe the past week. In particular this evening.
I can assure you that the psychological trauma begins before the ditch into the endless ocean. It began in the air. As we circled.
My question, tone answered honestly please.
Were we in NZ Airspace when my legs turned to jelly and I felt my fate. Which haunts me every day as each sting of pain reminds me.
Therefore, psychological trauma could have began in NZ airspace??
Bodily injuries, full impact where I sat, into the Ocean. Norfolk jurisdiction??
If lessons could be learned with this current opportunity for a change of culture. If the truth told.
Just get it right.
Break the political cycle of bantering aviation safety laws/reforms.
Absolute nightmare. Believe me.
Tut tut…twenty years. Dear oh dear.
I shake my head. As I am wasting my time bothering anymore.
Butt heads. Be ridiculous regarding serious matters. Ignore those who needed your help not your avoidance.
Chin up Kasey (Ziggychick) not long to go now…