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Landings are not always as perfect as they should be

Phuket Disaster Echoed Jetstar Landing Scare

Sunday, March 7, 2010
BELATED revelations about a Jetstar flight that came close to the ground during an aborted landing resonate with reminders of the fatal crash of One Two Go flight 269 on Phuket.

The incidents came within weeks of each other. The Phuket crash on September 16, 2007 left 90 dead and 40 survivors injured, some badly.

The Jetstar incident took place on July 21 that same year, but only now has the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released its final report.

Since 2007, Jetstar has become probably the largest single provider of overseas tourists direct to Phuket, with daily flights on and off the island.

Given that the complete report on the fatal Phuket crash has never been formally released, it's fascinating to compare reports on the account of the first incident with the little that has been made public about the disaster that followed.

The Phuket crash came about, Thai authorities have said in summary, because the pilot failed to react fast enough in an aborted landing during a freak Phuket storm.

According to media reports, just weeks earlier, the Jetstar pilots were distracted, stressed and confused by blaring cockpit alarms.

They allowed the flight from New Zealand to Melbourne, carrying 138 passengers, to come within 11.5 metres of the ground during an aborted landing attempt in heavy fog.

Investigators also found Jetstar did not report the incident fully, reported it late, and had not tested revised cockpit procedures at the centre of the drama before implementing them.

The Age newspaper in Melbourne reports that the Airbus A320 was in its final stages of landing with its wheels down when the pilots decided to abort because of low visibility.

But the pilot in command did not move the thrust control lever into the correct position for ascent, compounded by changed cockpit procedures, triggering a sequence of alarms as the autopilot remained programmed to land.

Over 48 seconds, the autopilot accelerated and the plane descended to a low of 11.5 metres off the tarmac at 304 km/h.

''That led to crew confusion, compounded by alerts and warnings that distracted them,'' the report said.

''The end result was a higher-than-normal and unexpected workload and the crew being unaware of the aircraft's current flight mode.''

Thinking they were set for climbing, the pilots frantically tried to comprehend a barrage of alarms warning that the plane was ''pitching down rather than up''.

As a last resort, the pilot in command killed the alarms with a master switch, turned off the autopilot and wrestled the plane back into the sky.

The pilots failed to land on a second attempt, so air traffic control sent them to a smaller alternative airport south of Melbourne.

Given the lack of public information surrounding the Phuket crash, that may be as close as we ever get to learning what may have happened as the One Two Go holiday flight from Bangkok came in to land.

Distraction, stress, confusion . . .

The Australian Associated Press reports: ''Once the crew realised the visibility was too low, the pilot began a so-called missed approach or 'go-around procedure' to make the aircraft climb up for a second landing attempt.

''But the pilot didn't move the plane's thrust levers into the right position, causing chaos inside the cabin.''

The report in The Age continues: ''Based on information that Jetstar first gave to the safety bureau, which did not mention that the ground-proximity alarm went off, the bureau decided no investigation was needed.

''Jetstar launched its own investigation, analysed the flight data that showed the warning was triggered - something that has to be reported to authorities in 72 hours. It was not.

''It was not until media inquiries to the safety bureau over the incident more than a month later prompted the bureau to go back to Jetstar, that the full extent of the emergency became known and a formal investigation was initiated.''

As a result of the Phuket crash and criticism of pilot training and working hours, One Two Go was suspended and did not return to the air until Thailand's Department of Civil Aviation was sure that concerns about safety had been addressed.

In Jetstar's case, the Australian safety bureau found the airline had ''not conducted a risk analysis of the change to the procedure and did not satisfy the incident-reporting requirements of its safety management systems''.

Australian and International Pilots Association president Barry Jackson said in a statement: ''It appears that Jetstar has failed to comply with its own safety management system, which is part of its operations manual. The obvious question now is what other events have not been reported.''

Jetstar has changed its go-around procedures in response to the report.
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