Air-safety investigators have released details of how two big passenger jets flew too low while coming in to land in separate incidents at Melbourne Airport. One was a Virgin Australia B777 and the other a Qantas A330. In one case, an automated “pull up” warning sounded in the cockpit.
The Virgin captain, arriving on a long-haul flight from Los Angeles carrying 272 passengers and 17 crew, “inadvertently entered an erroneous height against a way point”, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) found. As a result, the plane descended too rapidly and flew lower than it should.
Four red lights in the cockpit indicated the plane was well below correct level. The flight crew quickly rectified the error and the aircraft landed safely shortly afterwards.
Investigators said several factors, including fatigue, could have played a part. The crew was tired after flying 15 hours. In the words of the ATSB: “Due to extended wakefulness, the crew were probably experiencing fatigue at a level that has been demonstrated to affect performance, although fatigue could not be confirmed as contributing to the error in developing the approach profile.”
The Virgin incident happened on 15 August 2013, and the Qantas incident happened in 2013 as well. It takes a while for the ATSB to report on such matters.
Virgin Australia has since changed the landing approach that its B777 crews use.
Tiredness may have played a role in the Qantas A330 incident as well. The captain was feeling tired and sick on the day his plane was forced to pull up after flying too low as it approached Melbourne Tullamarine to land, the ATSB found. What’s more, he had eaten only a half of cup of soup.
The Qantas A330 incident happened on 8 March 2013. As the plane flew below 1800 feet on its landing approach, the aircraft’s first officer told the captain “you are too low” after he looked out the cockpit’s windows and checked a flight display.
The captain swiftly adjusted the rate of descent but the “terrain” warnings blared and told the crew to “pull up”.
In its final report into the Qantas incident, the ATSB found the combined effects of disrupted and too little sleep, a cold and a lack of food (other than the half cup of soup) may have impaired the captain’s performance.
As a result, Qantas updated its training material for visual approaches and enhanced similar material in its captain/first officer conversion/promotion training books. In addition, targeted questions were developed that required check pilot sign‑off for proficiency. Finally, visual approaches were included as a discussion subject during flight crew route checks for the period 2013–2015.
The most notorious run of low landing approaches in Melbourne was in 2011, when Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) suspended Tiger Airway’s operations after one of that airline’s pilots flew too low into Melbourne’s Avalon airport. Two further instances shortly afterwards of Tiger Airways’ planes being flown below the lowest safe altitude into Melbourne Avalon led to the airline being grounded.
Written by Peter Needham