Crew of ditched Westwind criticised for flight planning

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The low-fuel ditching of an Israel Aircraft Industries Westwind 1124A business jet (VH-NGA) near the remote Australian Pacific territory of Norfolk Island was the result of inadequate flight planning and en route weather monitoring by the crew, according to the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau's final report.

The ditching occurred at night off the island's southern shore on 18 November 2009, and although the fuselage broke in two, all six occupants were rescued by surface craft. The planned flight by Australian business aircraft operator Pel-Air was an aeromedical operation from Apia, Samoa, to Melbourne, Australia, with an en route fuel stop at Norfolk Island. On board were the two pilots, a doctor, nurse, the patient and a passenger. The report observes that the crew's participation in "wet drills" and the medical team's training for underwater escape from helicopter ditching was influential in ensuring their survival.

The crew had positioned from Sydney via Norfolk Island to Samoa the previous day, and having failed to obtain adequate en route weather for the return journey, the captain elected to apply the same upper air condition for planning purposes. Unfortunately, the 50kt (93km/h) tailwind on the inbound leg turned out to be an 80kt headwind for the return, and although the reported weather for Norfolk Island was adequate for an approach, it was deteriorating. The crew failed to get an update sufficiently early to enable a viable diversion to Noumea to be flown, so they continued to the planned destination. Norfolk Island's remoteness means diversion decisions have to be made by a certain point in the route.

The ATSB records that the crew made two non-precision approaches to runway 29 using the island's VOR/DME navigation beacon, but did not make visual contact with the runway in squally weather in darkness, so carried out missed approaches from both. Two more attempts followed, the first to runway 11, and then a last approach to 29, after which the crew was committed to a ditching. They prepared for a gear-up ditching and judged their flare height using radio altimeter readouts because the dark sea surface was invisible.

The report gives the cause as inadequate flight planning and en route weather monitoring, and emphasises how vital accurate and careful planning is for remote destinations such as Norfolk Island.