Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) senior research analyst Dave Wilson is working on a research investigation that will raise awareness of potential weather-related risks among pilots and also examine the effectiveness of rules that have been in place for more than 30 years.
Weather planning rules in Australia are unique compared to countries in Europe and North America. Because weather in Australia is generally good, risks are very low. But when weather is unsuitable for landing, these differences can have a real world effect on aircraft operations. It is these effects that Wilson’s research aims to quantify.
A number of unforecast weather episodes relating to flights into major Australian airports have led to unforeseen diversions, holding and, in some cases, landing below published safe limits. Wilson’s research is seeking to understand how the reliability of weather forecasts affects the ability of flight crew to conduct safe landings.
“I want to help decrease the likelihood of pilots being exposed to unexpected and unsuitable conditions for landing,” Wilson said. “The likelihood of an accident happening because of conditions unsuitable for landing is low. But in making it even lower, the probability of a major accident happening reduces considerably.
“Initially I’m looking at Mildura and Adelaide airports. At Mildura, 99% of the time, the weather is suitable to land a large aircraft. But based on the data I’ve looked at, there is still a remote possibility you may have an unreliable forecast. With the volume of air traffic, this could affect up to four aircraft per year.
“If you look at Adelaide, the chances of a single flight crew being exposed to an unreliable forecast are lower. However, when you take into account fluctuations in weather reliability, and the aircraft traffic arrival patterns (around 50,000 per year), the potential to result in a catastrophic accident increases. That’s what we want to avoid.
“If you’re in the air and you get to the point of last safe diversion—where you’ll be committed to landing at the planned destination—if the current forecast predicts marginal conditions, questions are raised as to whether continuing to the planned destination or diverting to an alternate destination should be required. This scenario has been a particular focus of this research.”
Wilson has a vested interest in his research. Several actually. He’s a pilot who first flew solo when he was a 15-year-old student at Caringbah High in Sydney – well before he could legally drive. The opportunity of subsidised flying with the Australian Air Force Cadets was too good to knock back. He has since flown aerobatics out of Bankstown Airport but has undertaken little flying over past two years while pursuing this research.
Wilson also has degrees in Aeronautical Engineering and Physics from Sydney University. It was there he attended a guest lecture by Pierre Blais from the Directorate of Defence Aviation and Air Force Safety (DDAAFS), which set him on a path to the ATSB.
“It was then that I thought investigating aviation safety would provide the ultimate career path for me. I find it both meaningful and challenging,” Wilson said.
The research was initially going to secure Wilson a master’s degree. But he is now upping the ante and aiming to pursue a doctorate. A stumbling block is finding reviewers with sufficient expertise in a related field. When you’re breaking new ground, this is often the case.
After first working at the Department of Infrastructure as a vehicle compliance engineer, Wilson came to the ATSB to embrace his love of aircraft, engineering and how things work. Now with six years under his belt, Dave is also considering his future. “I’m happy as long as I’m being challenged,” he said. “But after this research is completed, I wouldn’t mind also undertaking a broader range of transport safety investigations.”
Research on Adelaide and Mildura aerodromes is expected to be published by the end of 2016. Progressive reports for each major aerodrome in Australia and four of our remote island aerodromes (Norfolk, Cocos, Christmas and Lord Howe) will be progressively released over the next year or two.
Edited by William Sykes