Statement from Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown AO - Sunday Night (1 June 2014)
2 June 2014
On 1 June, Channel 7’s Sunday Night program aired claims by Dick Smith, incorrectly claiming Royal Australian Air Force contributed to the crash of VH-MDX in 1981.
While the death of the pilot and passengers is tragic, and I hope the search for them will bring closure for their families, Air Force cannot speculate as to why the pilot of VH-MDX chose to not fly through Williamtown airspace, as was done by numerous other civilian aircraft at the time of the accident.
The program acknowledged that the aircraft had mechanical issues and instrument failures, including a failed altitude indicator, automatic direction finder and vacuum pump.
The [then] Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (now the Australian Transport Safety Bureau), which investigated the incident at the time, found no fault with RAAF or military air traffic control. The facts of the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation into the VH-MDX accident on 9 August 1981 are available via the National Archives of Australia.
On the evening of the disappearance of VH-MDX, Williamtown Air Traffic Control immediately offered a clearance for VH-MDX at an amended altitude (of 7,000 feet or 9,000 feet) to ensure separation with a preceding civilian aircraft (at 8,000 feet) that was already inside Williamtown airspace. This was done without delay and more than 30 minutes before VH-MDX reported entering bad weather.
It is incorrect to claim that Air Force caused VH-MDX to fly an unsuitable track. The presence of civilian aircraft in Williamtown airspace demonstrates that civilian aircraft were permitted to transit Williamtown airspace.
Contrary to the program’s story, civilian aircraft can and do fly through Williamtown airspace every day. Williamtown Air Traffic Control handles more than 34,000 civilian aircraft movements through the Williamtown airspace each year, including 1.2 million passengers who use the Newcastle airport terminal situated at RAAF Base Williamtown.
For civil aircraft flying visually through Williamtown airspace, Air Force created three specific flight paths that are designed to provide civilian access to Williamtown airspace and to deconflict with military and other civilian aircraft.
Air Force operates a multi-layered air traffic control system which is regulated by a comprehensive regime of independent audits and evaluations and is integrated with Australia’s national Air Traffic Management network
It is routine to restrict access to military airspace for both safety and security reasons. Such restrictions provide separation from hazardous environments including air weapons ranges. In fact, Australia is more generous than many nations, allowing civilian access when requested and whenever safety and security allow; and we operate formal airspace sharing arrangements at Williamtown, Darwin and Townsville.
In an emergency, civil aircraft can access defence airspace and airfields for emergency landings.
The story also implied that VH-MDX was unreasonably requested to hold. Aircraft are routinely required by civilian and military Air Traffic Control to hold or adjust the aircraft’s track, altitude or speed, to ensure separation is maintained with preceding and higher priority military and civilian aircraft. The likelihood of holding is increased for aircraft that do not submit a flight plan because the aircraft's data needs to be manually entered into the Air Traffic Control system.
Attributing this tragedy to the Air Force is sensationalist and incorrect and I note that the program did not seek any comment or clarification from either Air Force or Defence in relation to this incident. It is disappointing that these unsubstantiated claims were aired on national television.
Air Marshal Geoff Brown AO
Chief of Air Force