Aviation

ATSB investigates trainee air traffic controller after Qantas planes’ near miss

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Australia’s transport safety authority is investigating whether a trainee air traffic controller is to blame for a near miss between two Qantas planes.

According to a preliminary report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), an aircraft’s last-resort emergency collision systems triggered when two Qantas planes came within 200 metres of one another near Sydney Airport.

The incident, categorised as “serious” by the ATSB, occurred in August, last year, on the watch of a supervised trainee air traffic controller, when a Boeing 737 was on its final approach to Sydney, as an Airbus A330 readied for departure at the same time.

After a previous landing aircraft had cleared the runway, the air traffic controller cleared the Airbus A330 for immediate take-off. Shortly after, the flight crew of the Boeing 737 were issued a late instruction to go around as the “runway separation standard” of 1,000 feet vertically could not be assured.

The Airbus travelled just 152 metres below the Boeing aircraft, in an anxious few seconds described as “very close” by the A330 aircraft’s captain, who radioed the control tower.

Google earth overlaid with Qantas Airways flight data. Annotated by ATSB (ATSB)

The controller, who was training to take up a position at Sydney Airport at the time, had instructed the flight crew of the 737 to turn on to an easterly heading and climb to provide separation with the A330 as that aircraft became airborne.

However, the instruction to turn provided to the flight crew of the 737 conflicted with the departure track of the A330. This saw both aircraft come within 152 metres vertically and 796 metres laterally of one another – well below the runway separation standard.

The flight crew of the A330 subsequently received a traffic collision avoidance system alert – a last-resort safety mechanism – with the captain sending a radio transmission saying, “that was very close”, the preliminary report noted.

The A330 then climbed to 5,000 feet and continued to Melbourne without further incident. The 737 climbed to 3,000 feet and was issued radar vectors for a second approach to the runway, landing without further incident a short time later.

According to the report, the trainee air traffic controller was working supervised in the tower at Sydney Airport, where he or she was training to take up a position, and had prior experience working at other airports.

In a statement, Qantas said that even if both aircraft stayed on the same flight paths, “they were not in danger of colliding”.

“We’re continuing to work with the ATSB on their ongoing investigation.”

A final report will be released at the conclusion of the investigation, following the current evidence collection phase, which will include interviewing the air traffic controllers and flight crew, and reviewing recorded surveillance and flight data.

Featured image: Qantas aeroplanes at Sydney Airport (iStock.com/oversnap)

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