Near miss when two aircraft cleared for collision course in controlled airspace between Westgate Bridge and Essendon Airport on 18 February 1996.
I was pilot in command of a Twin Comanche registered VH-TPS, flying from Hamilton to Essendon after completing the Ansett 60th Anniversary Air Race in early 1996. At the time I held a commercial pilot licence and grade 1 instructor rating, and had over 2500 hours flying experience. My passenger was another pilot (the owner of the aircraft). At Westgate bridge I called Essendon Tower and requested a clearance to Essendon at 1500 feet. I was cleared to fly at 1500 feet via Station Pier and Moonee Valley, and to call the tower again at Moonee Valley. I tracked as cleared and entered the Melbourne Control zone on departing Station Pier for Moonee Valley at 1500 feet. There was a light southerly wind and our groundspeed would have been around 160 knots (296kph).
What we had not been told at that time was that Essendon Tower had, moments earlier, cleared a helicopter to track from the World Trade Centre on the Yarra River to Essendon, not above 1500 feet. The first we learned of the potential conflict was when we heard the tower asking first the helicopter and then us to confirm one of us had the other in sight. Neither of us had sighted the other. We heard the tower advise the helicopter that we were a single. We were not, and I had identified our aircraft twice in communications with the tower during our entry to controlled airspace as a ‘Twin Comanche’. The twin is of course much faster than a single. We corrected that misapprehension promptly. Later analysis suggests that the tower’s mistake in thinking we were a single, meant it assumed we would be slower than the helicopter and that the helicopter should be ahead of us at all relevant times. That was a significant and potentially fatal error.
Despite not having sighted us, the helicopter kept climbing in accordance with his clearance to track to Essendon not above 1500 feet. Both aircraft, flying in accordance with their respective clearances as to track and altitude, were on paths which would intersect, and had the helicopter reached 1500 feet a few moments earlier, we would have collided.
The helicopter pilot suddenly and in urgent tones told the tower that the Twin Comanche had just flown over the top of him with a vertical separation that was too close for comfort. He reported that we were drawing away from him quickly and had passed him from behind. As the helicopter was approaching this point on climb but lower than us, a combination of the nose of our aircraft, the low wing design and the engines protruding forward from the wings meant that we could not see the helicopter. Both aircraft subsequently landed at Essendon without further incident.
In normal operations in controlled airspace aircraft are required to fly the altitude and heading the subject of an express airways clearance delivered over the radio. When there is more than one aircraft in the control zone, separation is maintained by clearances being provided with altitude and tracking requirements that will avoid any two or more aircraft being at the same point in the air at the same time. At least this is what should happen. The pilot retains responsibility to keep a good lookout for other traffic and can take evasive action to avoid a collision when necessary. But this latter aspect of safety responsibility is dependent on the pilot being aware of the conflicting traffic. At no relevant time was the helicopter visible to us, nor was its position known to us. The tower controller did not advise either aircraft of the position of the other. It would draw rebuke from ATC in a control zone if the pilot of an aircraft were to make an ‘all stations’ call advising everyone on the frequency of his position and intention (as would occur outside controlled airspace). So in controlled airspace, a pilot is deprived of this major tool of collision avoidance, the advisory radio call to any and all aircraft in a particular area. This places a high onus on air traffic controllers to keep aircraft appropriately apart by issuing airways clearances which do not place two aircraft on a collision course.
As we approached for the landing the passenger asked what I was going to do about the tower controller’s error. I said that it could well have been a trainee controller, or there may have been some untimely distraction in the tower, and given that there was no damage or injury I’d probably do nothing about it. He didn’t disagree.
But that intention of mine changed in an instant not long after we landed. Upon landing and taxying off the runway, the ground controller cleared us to taxi and added, ‘Please call the tower on this number after you have shutdown.’ This is a step taken when something involving the aircraft has recently happened and the tower wants to talk to the pilot to discuss with a view to either leaving it at that, or advising the pilot that the further steps will be taken in relation to his actions starting with reporting the incident. I told the ground controller rather abruptly that I certainly would be calling the tower.
As soon as the aircraft was parked and shut down I rang the tower and immediately asked for an explanation of the near-miss orchestrated by the tower controller between our aircraft and the helicopter between Station Pier and Moonee Valley. His response was that he just wanted to let me know all was OK and that the tower wouldn’t be taking any further action (whatever that meant). I said that was entirely unacceptable, that clearing two aircraft on to a collision course was very serious, and that they should preserve the tower frequency tapes of the relevant comunications and be prepared for further investigation of the matter after I reported it. My passenger and I both felt that the tower’s attitude was one of trying to subtly intimidate us into taking no further steps, by implying we had done something wrong in respect of which they, being good blokes, were not going to take any further steps. Had they apologised with some explanation I would not have made a report. But I had no option but to report it once the tower indicated that it did not accept it had done anything wrong, as that would almost certainly have led to no remedial steps being taken in terms of tower procedure and individual controller competence to prevent a recurrence. It would have been swept under the rug. At the time I was a barrister specialising in aviation law. My passenger was a solicitor in a large law firm who practised nationally and internationally in aviation law, and who was a member of the board of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. We took no further steps beyond formally reporting the incident.
I sent a detailed three page incident report to the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation or BASI as that body was generally called (the Australian Transport Safety Bureau did not exist at that time). I was contacted by the investigator some weeks later and advised that the incident had been investigated and the facts and allegations in my incident report had been accepted.
Airservices Australia is responsible for air traffic control and it would have been required to take appropriate corrective steps in light of the nature of the incident and the findings of the BASI investigation.
A brief with a difference
I became a barrister in 1988. From the outset aviation law was a key part of my practice. The fact that I had flying qualifications and aviation experience proved useful in this regard. One memorable brief early in my career at the bar was from an aviation-insurer client which was a party to litigation in the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin relating to severe injuries sustained by the surviving pilot of the crash of a Cessna 172.
I was initially briefed to undertake what is referred to as a ‘view’ of the scene of the accident. ‘Views’ are often taken by legal counsel, sometimes with their instructing solicitors, sometimes the client or a potential expert witness might come along, and once a trial has started it is not uncommon for all legal representatives and the judge hearing the case to visit the relevant site for a ‘view’. But in this case I was going solo.
The crash occurred in 1989 during takeoff from the dirt airstrip at Lake Evella, an aboriginal community in north-eastern Arnhem Land about 60 nautical miles WSW of Nhulunbuy. The aircraft suffered a partial engine failure on takeoff. It was being flown by a student undertaking a navigation exercise. The student pilot’s husband was in the back seat with a child, and the 21 year old flying instructor was in the front right hand seat. The instructor took over control when the engine malfunctioned and among other actions retarded the throttle to idle and banked the aircraft to the right where it crashed into trees lining the runway. There was a fire after impact which caused the sole survivor (the adult male in the back seat) to suffer severe burns.
I was briefed to fly to Nhulunbuy via Darwin as a passenger on commercial airlines, and to hire a Cessna 172 at Nhulunbuy and fly myself out to Lake Evella to inspect the airstrip, accident site and environs from a pilot’s and a barrister’s perspective. At that stage I held a commercial pilot licence and grade 1 instructor rating and had a considerable number of flying hours in the Cessna 172 type.
Upon arrival in Nhulunbuy I went to the airport where I had already booked a Cessna 172 to fly myself to Lake Evella subject to first doing a satisfactory check flight with the local instructor. The young instructor’s lot at Gove airport left an impact on me. He took me to a makeshift office in some scrub between the runways and the airport fence to do the necessary paperwork before we flew. It was in fact the front half of a shipping container lying in scrub not far from the runway. It had a cotton sheet or somesuch hanging from the roof which concealed whatever was in the other half of the container. Just as we were about to leave the ‘briefing room’ and head to the aircraft, I heard a baby crying and the pilot’s partner emerged from behind the hanging sheet smiling with their young baby in her arms. We had a pleasant chat but I never did learn whether that was just a lounge room in which she spent time, or whether it was in fact their accommodation. She must have been deeply in love to make do with this situation while he got his flying hours up to further his career and hopefully become an airline pilot one day. I hope their plans came to fruition.
It is understood in the aviation industry that young pilots aspiring to flying for an airline must gain many hours of flying experience wherever they can get it. This can involve living in very remote locations, flying very old aeroplanes, flying at low level and doing it all for poor pay. The desire to fly and progress as a pilot is strong enough in most young pilots to see them endure such (hopefully) temporary hardship with a smile. Of course, if and when such a pilot secures employment as an airline pilot, the chapter of his or her career covering pre-airline general aviation flying with its attendant social and pyisical privations receives the final full stop, and transforms instantly into a period of colourful adventures.
We did the check flight and the instructor (who had less flying hours in his log book than I had) was quickly satisfied that I could fly and signed me off with a briefing on what to do in the event of a forced landing in the wild tropical jungle between Gove and Lake Evella. A memorable element of the advice was that if forced down, I should spend the night up a tree above the high tide mark if near the coast, out of reach of salt water crocodiles and wild buffalo.
So it was that on 16 November 1993 I flew myself to Lake Evella in the Cessna 172. It wasn’t a long flight. After inspecting the strip on foot, I did a variety of takeoffs and landings with the aircraft in various configurations, including simulating engine failure (by retarding the throttle to idle) at the altitude and position above the runway of the crashed aircraft when it had its partial engine failure. The most important thing I decided was that the runoff area at the end of the airstrip with its immature saplings (I had been informed that similar vegetation was in place at the time of the accident) offered the safer alternative of landing straight ahead after the partial engine failure. The pilot erred in not taking this alternative, and in banking the aircraft and turning towards the trees where the crash occurred. This issue featured in the subsequent litigation and the findings of the judge included that the deceased pilot had been negligent in failing to land straight ahead. There were of course many procedural steps between me forming that preliminary opinion after my ‘view’ at the airstrip, and the matter being raised by expert evidence in the trial. Of course I did not give evidence at the trial as I was counsel appearing in it. I was briefed to appear at the trial in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in Darwin, which I did, together with Michael Maurice QC. Our client settled with the plaintiff prior to judgment in the trial. The terms remain confidential. The report of the reasons for decision of the court in this matter is available on the internet. A search under Matzat v Gove Flying Club Inc and others will locate it. The judge was Mildren J.
This substantial aviation brief came to me early in my career at the bar. Over my 33 years as a barrister, there were many more.
Client insurer arranges fly-in weekend on Fraser Island Gippsland
An aviation insurer and regular client of mine invited a diverse crew to its xmas celebrations in a grand old house on Fraser Island in Gippsland in early December 1994. I hired a Cessna 182RG registered VH-JHB to fly down there with Liz for the weekend, as it had the required short field performance. This is the approach to land – the airstrip doubles as a golf fairway. Takeoffs in the opposite direction require care as masts of passing yachts can infringe the flight path of a departing aircraft. The strip reminded me of some I saw in the Solomon Islands in the late 1970s.
Memorable family flying holiday in a Cherokee Six to Cummins, Arkaroola and other places in September 1998
We did quite a few trips together as a family in light aircraft. I always enjoyed being able to travel on our own schedule to remote places not serviced by regular commercial passenger flights. On this trip the passenger list included Meaghan, a good friend of our daughter Jess. The Cherokee Six, registered VH-POA, was a very spacious and comfortable aircraft for the trip.
L: Jess not taking the pre-flight safety briefing seriously.
R: Jess, Meaghan and Georgie.
While everyone got a window seat, a lot of sleeping was done on the longer legs.
Old-school GPS. The accuracy it provided with such ease was a change from how most of my outback navigation had been done over the years,
Happy passengers on the ground at Port Lincoln.
Ian Oswald-Jacobs with me on the Eyre Peninsula. IOJ features in another post on this blog: https://southernoceanblog.com/2021/06/08/six-days-on-thistle-island-south-australia/
Dining out with Barry Firth, a very good friend and a flying mentor to me from when I first met him in Port Lincoln in early 1978. By the time of his death in 2004 Barry had accumulated 26,000 hours of general aviation flying in his log book.
Cummins to Andamooka (238 nautical miles / 440kms)
This is your captain speaking….
Andamooka airstrip and township. We circled the town before landing and by previous arrangement, someone from the pub drove out to take us into town.
Jess’s take on Andamooka was, ‘Why would you go there unless you crashed there on the way to somewhere else?’
We flew from Andamooka, across the northern Flinders Ranges, to Arkaroola settlement on the eastern edge of the Flinders Ranges. The airstrip was a short distance away on the flatland immediately east of the mountains. We overflew the settlement on arrival then landed, and Doug Sprigg came out and drove us to our accommodation at the village. Doug has a proper observatory set up, as the location is well inland where the air is clean, dry and clear. It was sophisticated enough to track whatever was being observed to compensate for the rotation of the earth. So the image of the object of interest remained in the middle of the viewing lens.
I remember Jess and Meaghan declaring that the highlight of the trip for them was looking into the outback night sky through the telescope at the observatory, and seeing the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter in crystal clear focus and in real time.
Sillers Lookout – a highlight of the Arkaroola Ridgetop Tour
Arkaroola to Moorabbin
The final leg of the trip was Arkaroola to Moorabbin (about 540 nautical miles / 1000kms). We refuelled and spent the night at Mildura with friends.
Total flight time Arkaroola – Mildura – Moorabbin was 4.3 hours (2.0 + 2.3hrs).
Magnetic compass mounted above the instrument panel in VH-POA as we headed a little south of south-east on the last leg of the trip.
Measurement and calculation of the precise heading to fly using the compass for a given part of a route must take into account the following: the track required as measured with a protractor on the track drawn on a map; the magnetic variation en route (information available from aviation and other maps); the applicable compass deviation on any particular heading (compensation for magnetic interference with the compass from magnetic fields in some components of the aircraft – see deviation card below the compass in the photo above); wind which would blow the aircraft left or right of track if the appropriate drift angle was not applied to the flight planned track.
I did some gliding around 2003-4, at Tocumwal on the Murray River. Flying a glider is a wonderful experience. The glide ratio (the ratio of of forward movement to vertical movement) in these sleek aircraft is remarkable. For example, a training glider such as the Blanik has a glide ratio of around 30:1, and a very high performance glider could have a glide ratio of 70:1. That is, in still air it would glide 70kms horizontally from a starting height of 1km. Some of the single seat gliders I flew (eg the LS-4) had glide ratios of around 40:1. For comparison, a Cessna 172 has a glide ratio of around 7:1, my hang glider has a glide ratio of about 8:1, a high performance hang glider could have a glider ratio in the range 15:1 to 20:1; a Boeing 747 without power has a glide ratio of 17:1.
But unlike flying powered aeroplanes or hang gliders flying a glider, at least for beginners, is a team exercise. This translates into ‘time consuming’ in terms of logistics on the ground. A self-launching glider would be ideal for me. They can be operated completely solo They have a small power plant with a propeller sufficient to get airborne without a tow. The propeller and engine can be shut down and stowed in flight with minor drag penalties. Powered flying can be resumed at relatively short notice if you find yourself at low level miles away from base as the sun nears the horizon or the wind drops.
At Apollo Bay, a powered glider in a hangar on the strip would be great. In strong onshore winds I could take-off under power, fly to the nearest coastal line of hills, shut down the engine and glide backwards and forwards along miles of magnificent coastline.
This is the cockpit of an LS-4 glider, regisgtered VH-IIE in which I did a some hours in the skies around Tocumwal. A similar photo appeared in chapter 1 of this ‘Flying Memories’ series of posts. It’s a single seater and a joy to fly. The glide ratio is so good that it is possible to fly around for hours in even light thermal conditions, lying back back comfortably in a semi-reclining position on my parachute (strapped to me) which the seat was designed to accommodate. I have always loved flying around clouds.
Most grassy glider strips around Australia have an old bus parked nearby for the usual crew to gather. The bus is shelter from the sun and a social focal point for those waiting for the glider they booked to become available for them to fly, those on duty holding wingtips of gliders about to commence their tow run, those helping move gliders back from where their flight ended to a spot off the runway, and students waiting for their lesson.
Not as basic as the base bar of a hang glider, but a lot simpler than eg the instrument panel of a light twin. (below)
My previous experience in light aircraft and hang gliders was very useful when I started gliding. I flew dual in a Blanik with an instructor one weekend and was sent off in a single seat Junior the following weekend. Not long after that I completed a 100km solo cross country flight from Tocumwal to Jerilderie and back in a higher performance LS4 glider. There were clear cloud streets (ideal conditions with abundant lift on offer) and much of my time was spent avoiding excessive lift which at times could well have taken me into cloud. I did not have to do a lot of circling. Another glider had been flying behind me for the trip, and as I (we), flying at around 3000 feet above ground level, were approaching a point where a straight-line glide on descent to the airport was just feasible, the cloud street seemed to end and we were going down – very gradually, but still down. There were blue skies above from our current position to Tocumwal. But out to our right there was a sizeable and active cumulus cloud which was easily within gliding distance of my current position. I headed for the cloud. the other glider chanced his arm and headed straight for Tocumwal. The other glider landed short in a paddock. I made the cloud and climbed beneath it to cloud base (over 5,000′ above ground level) in strong lift. From that height my glide to Tocumwal was assured. I arrived above the circuit area with thousands of feet to spare, which I used to do large lazy circles enjoying the scenery and the late afternoon light before I joined the circuit and landed.
A top day
In November 2004 work commitments were keeping me very busy. I didn’t have time to drive myself myself up to Tocumwal to go gliding, wan exercise which takes more than a day. So I marked out 12 November as a day off (I was working for myself), and booked a Cessna 172RG based at Essendon for the day. I booked a glider and tow aircraft at Tocumwal to be ready and waiting beside the strip when we arrived, as well as a glider and an instructor to take my brother Noel flying for a bit of fun.
The day dawned with fine weather, and we flew from Essendon to Tocumwal. We landed on the strip beside the glider strip and parked near the bus. It was a short walk to the gliders which together with the tug aircraft (with pilot) were waiting on the grass. Noel’s instructor Don had a Blanik glider ready for their flying. We both had thoroughly enjoyable gliding flights and were home before dark in time for dinner. Flight time Essendon to Tocumwal was a little over an hour each way. Top day.
Flight along the Great Ocean Road in the ABC Chopper
In the course of my work as a barrister specialising in aviation law, there was a period in the 1990s when I did a lot of helicopter cases. As a result of this I was invited to give an address at a Melbourne meeting in January of an association of Victorian helicopter pilots. I declined, giving as my reason that I would be holidaying in Apollo Bay for all of January and was not interested in driving back to Melbourne for an evening. The response was, ‘Would it make a difference if we picked you up at Apollo Bay in a helicopter late afternoon on the day of the meeting, flew you to Melbourne for the meeting, and returned you to Apollo Bay early the next day?’ It made a difference.
The first photo shows my ride to Melbourne arriving at the Apollo Bay airstrip. The second shows the return flight next day down the Great Ocean Road coast. It was a wonderful flight. Had I been given the controls for some of the return flight I’m sure I would now be commenting along the lines, ‘Flying by attitude in a helicopter at reasonable forward speed has some similarities to flying by attitude in a fixed wing aircraft.’ Had I been given the controls upon arrival at AB with an invitation to hover over the beach directly in front of the holiday house that Liz and I were renting on the foreshore, I probably would have said, ‘Thankyou,’ followed shortly thereafter by, ‘Handing over’ and further followed, after we landed, by the observation that, ‘Hovering a helicopter is a bit like trying to stand on a large ball bearing in roller skates.’ Helicopter controls are very sensitive, I am told. Any control input seems to have consequences which require actions on other controls to achieve the desired performance. This seems to involve both hands and both feet and full concentration. It’s an attractive challenge.
I would love to have learned to fly a helicopter for the sheer challenge of the manipulative skills required. But I’m pleased I put my time and effort into learning to fly fixed wing aircraft.
Flying trips Cessna 182RG VH-MWL
A good friend of mine, Chris, who had a very long and successful career as an international airline captain, owned a very well maintained Cessna 182RG, registered VH-MWL. He used it for private flying. On 21 January 2006 he flew down to Apollo Bay with his wife Doreen to visit us. After lunch he suggested I go for a fly with him in the 182. I jumped at the chance as I had not been doing much flying at all in recent times. Chris gave me the controls for the entire flight. We went along the coast to Geelong where we landed, refuelled then took off and returned to Apollo Bay. He then offered to leave the aeroplane with me in Apollo Bay for a couple of weeks to use at a very reasonable rate as often as I liked. I accepted gratefully.
Flight to Gippsland for lunch in Waratah Bay, same day return
On 25 January 2006 Liz and I flew the Cessna 182 from Apollo Bay to Leongatha via the Great Ocean Road coast and Point Lonsdale. We had lunch with friends Mark and Cath at Waratah Bay and Mark kindly provided taxi services from and to the airport.
Liz at the controls on the flight back to Apollo Bay. On the ground at Leongatha.
Our house in Apollo Bay (the one in the middle with the green roof). Short final on approach for a landing at Apollo Bay on the downsloping runway 09.
Plenty of daylight left after we landed and secured the aircraft at Apollo Bay. We finished the day with fish and chips on the foreshore.
Flight from Apollo Bay to Bright with Georgie and Darren
31 January to 2 February 2006 I flew Georgina and Darren to Bright for a couple of days. We landed at Porepunkah airstrip at the foot of Mount Buffalo in the Buckland Valley. We caught up with friends, enjoyed the best ice-creams in Australia at the Anders’ ice-cream shop, swam in clear icy mountain pools on the side of Mount Buffalo, and Darren had his first ride on a recliner bicycle (Gilbert’s). Flight time between Bright and Apollo Bay was just over 2 hours. Liz and I recently did the same trip by car – it took a day (7 hours driving plus stops).
Georgie flying from the right hand seat and maintaining straight and level by hand for a lengthy period of time. My co-pilot looking quietly pleased with her performance. The Great Ocean Road bridge over the Barham River. Apollo Bay.
Final approach for landing on runway 27 at Apollo Bay. This runway slopes up to the west.
Flight from Apollo Bay to a farm strip near Dunkeld and return
The last time I flew VH-MWL was in September 2007 when Markus (a pilot friend of mine from Germany) and I flew from Apollo Bay to a basic farm strip near Dunkeld. Friends of mine from Penshurst picked us up at the airstrip and we all lunched in style at the Royal Mail. Markus and I flew back to Apollo Bay via Warrnambool and the coast.
But a month before that Liz and I spent 14 wonderful days in VH-MWL touring the south-west of Western Australia. Photos and stories from that trip are the subject of the next and final chapter in this series of flying memories.
To be continued