Commercial pressure to minimise flight time and operational ‘expediency’ have, over the decades, claimed their fair share of lives in air accidents. This time, the latest Wrex in flight debacle descended to within 680 feet (about one minute) of landing on a pile of rocks, surrounded by steel; the loss would have been total. We need a little more explanation than the ATSB have provided in the way of what has been done to resolve the causal chain. It’s no good expecting the company culture to change, just because ATSB assure us that it has. The whole report has the faint whiff of some very sharp influence being used, yet again, to protect the vested interests and smooth over a potential PR disaster.
However, of much more concerned is why the pilot elected to ignore several viable options for a safe descent, approach and landing, which would have neatly placed the aircraft in the right place, in the right configuration, without startling the passengers.
Williamtown is a very good airport; the only comment, rather than criticism, I would make is that there is no airport light beacon. But there is little need for; and, little additional risk reduction to had from that facility. So what else do have by way of ‘operational’ (for want of better) limitations?
Well, a right hand circuit is a potential pain in the rear; simply because in most transport aircraft it is difficult to actually see the runway from the left pilot seat until the turn onto base leg is commenced; it is, whenever possible easier to let the right seat pilot fly the circuit, simply because the runway is always in plain sight. So on the evening in question, the FO was flying, no problem so far. The human factors angle is fascinating, the flying pilot ‘thinks’ but does not independently confirm that they were indeed heading for the coal loader; having failed to do so, the option to inform the PIC that this was ‘all ducked up’ was lost. Then allowing the descent and configuring for landing to be initiated made a mockery of any CRM training provided. The facts and evidence were writ large – “Skipper, the ADF say the airport is North of us, by six miles” point to the verifying instruments and initiate a go-around.
But before we look beyond this part of the comedy we need to lift one more layer and question the decisions, made by the PIC at the top of descent and why they were made.
Facts:- The PIC had previously had difficulty ‘sighting’ the facility, there was a tricky, failing light and there was a right base leg to fly. Now, to options, there is DME/GNSS letdown based on the radio beacon and TACAN; there is an ILS with centreline and glide path guidance; there is an NDB approach; and there is a RNAV approach which could, if used, take the aircraft to a centre line fix at five miles; on a glide-slope. All of which provide a stable, civilised approach path which can be used under both marginal and good visual conditions. So why were all of these toys not played with?, what prompted an ‘experienced’ captain to plough on to near disaster? We must ask ‘why’ the coals were hauled off, a descent started and a ‘visual’ approach conducted down to 680 feet, based on ‘intuition’ alone.
The best ATSB can come up with was – Oh, the pilot wasn’t feeling well, was tired and it was a bit darkish; but all is well now. ….BOLLOCKS.