Ex-mustering pilot calls for major changes to standards

'More lives will be lost unless there is change' - aerial mustering challenge

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One of the R22 helicopter accidents Leon Christiansen survived. Picture supplied.

One of the R22 helicopter accidents Leon Christiansen survived. Picture supplied.

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Lives will continue to be lost among rural Australia's aviation sector unless there are major changes in training, safety and maintenance standards, according to a commercial mustering pilot who has gotten out of the industry because he didn't like what he was seeing.

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Lives will continue to be lost among rural Australia's aviation sector unless there are major changes in training, safety and maintenance standards, according to a commercial mustering pilot who has gotten out of the industry because he didn't like what he was seeing.

Leon Christiansen has about 500 hours flying fixed wing light aircraft, R22 and R44 helicopters, and gyrocopters in central Queensland, around Roma and out of Kununurra in the Kimberley region since getting his licence in 2009, and has survived two life-threatening rotary wing crashes.

He now devotes much of his time to helping people in the bush with mental health challenges to reshape their perceptions, saying he's seen a big need for people struggling with the loss of loved ones.

Mr Christiansen said while he grew up knowing of a few people who had died in fixed wing crashes, their number was nothing like what he experienced once he got involved in the helicopter mustering sector.

"I've lost count at nine people close to me that have been fatally injured," he said.

"I have been involved in and seen many accidents, lots of the time from pilot error, from lack of training and safety standards.

"Other times it's maintenance issues from a nonchalant attitude to save a few dollars as people run many more hours on machines than what is allowed per maintenance requirements manuals.

"Gyrocopters and light aeroplanes are not to a certain standard, nor do many people have the right training."

Related: Helicopter mustering breakthrough

Mr Christiansen said proper certification when it came to mustering would lead to better regulation, especially for gyrocopters.

"I think gyrocopters should be commercialised so people can muster in them, as they get used anyway, but at the moment you can go mustering/flying one with 20 hours under your belt.

"Because they are sport rotorcraft they come under a different category.

"Helicopter pilots need a minimum of 100 hours and five hours low level training so it should be this as a minimum for gyrocopters.

"It should also be enforced that machines are factory built/certified to a high standard."

As well, Mr Christiansen said that while gyrocopters played a big part in the commercial rural aviation sector, if CASA continued to delegate responsibility for regulation to third party organisations such as the Australian Sport Rotorcraft Association, lives would continue to be lost.

"Gyrocopters are an incredible tool, they should be mustering, but they should be maintained to a standard, and there should be training," he said.

Leon Christiansen with one of the helicopters he's used in the years since he became licensed. Picture supplied.

Leon Christiansen with one of the helicopters he's used in the years since he became licensed. Picture supplied.

Some of Mr Christiansen's main concerns were the non-airworthiness of machines that had had damage done and were still flying, and young pilots who were desperate for flying experience.

"They are so eager to fly, they'll almost do it for free," he said. "They are trying to learn and they've got no experience."

His frustration at what he saw as a lack of accountability or oversight included looking at fatigue laws, and finding a way to deal with complacency.

He laid much of the blame for the lethargy in moving to make the industry safer on the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, saying that while regulating authorities sat back with deaf ears, rural Australia would continue to see fatalities occurring as agricultural businesses moved more to using light aircraft for mustering.

He said the ATSB's primary focus was on enhancing safety with respect to fare paying passengers, and in particular, those transport safety matters that may present a significant threat to public safety.

"In addition, the ATSB has observed that many accidents involve repetition of past occurrences where the contributing factors are similar and the safety issues are well known," he said.

"In these circumstances, the likely safety benefits and lessons may not always justify allocating significant resources.

"If the likes of ATSB and CASA continue to hold us of little importance and have us sitting at the bottom of their 'board of hierarchy' tables, we're not going to see change."

While the ATSB's role is to independently investigate transport accidents, it doesn't create policy or regulations and has no means of forcing actions to be taken.

In the last decade it has investigated 32 fatal aerial mustering accidents around Australia, excluding gyrocopters, which are overseen by Australian Sport Rotorcraft Association.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said they were in the final stages of developing a complete set of new rules for aerial work, including mustering.

"These new rules will further improve the safety standards for mustering," he said. "We are consulting with the aviation community on the finalisation of these rules."

He said they would likely be completed sometime next year, with a transition to implementation to follow after that.

Under the current safety rules, the companies conducting mustering must hold an air operator's certificate specifically approving mustering operations and setting out how safety will be maintained.

In addition, commercial mustering pilots must be trained and licensed, and aircraft used for commercial mustering must be maintained according to safety standards by approved maintenance organisations.

"We work closely with the aviation community and bodies such as the Helicopter Association on promoting safety in mustering," Mr Gibson said.

"CASA understands that safety is not static and we work with the different sectors of the aviation community, including mustering, to continually improve safety performance.

"We welcome suggestions for improving safety in the mustering sector.

"There are unique risks associated with aerial mustering and everyone involved in these operations must follow the safety requirements at all times, including pilot training, aircraft maintenance and safety management."

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