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Safety Snapshot: Split-second Decision Saved the Day (and more) in Perth

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Quick eyes and fast actions by the first officer of a QantasLink Boeing 717 prevented what otherwise may have been a deadly encounter between the twin-jet and an airport operations car on a foreign object debris (FOD) inspection at the Perth Airport in Australia last July. In response, the airport operator has implemented seven safety upgrades. (Note the picture above by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board is not meant to represent the 717 incursion)

According to a new report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the 717 had just touched down on Runway 24 when the first officer spotted the rotating orange beacon of “Safety Two” ahead on the runway and called for an immediate go-around due to a “car on the runway.”  An Airservices Australia air traffic controller had cleared the bright yellow car onto the runway but later forgot that the runway was occupied when clearing the 717 to land as the pilots completed a low-visibility instrument approach in the rain.

Safety Two had stopped on the centerline markings, facing away from the oncoming traffic, and the safety officer behind the wheel only became aware of the incursion after the 717 flew over at 150 ft. altitude during the go-around. The first officer said the aircraft broke out of the clouds at 700 ft. above the ground and he began looking for the car at 30 ft. altitude based on earlier reports that the inspection was underway in the area. The pilots said they did not hear the controllers clearing the car unto Runway 24. Visibility was approximately 1.6 nm in “moderate” showers at the time of the incident. 

Afterward, the crew told investigators that they made a “split-second” decision to perform the go-around, and had they commenced the reverse-thrust action, they “would have been committed” to the landing. “The first officer was highly experienced which may have assisted in sighting the vehicle and reacting quickly,” say the ATSB. “The incident provided a very good example of the value of flight crew knowing their role as pilot flying or pilot monitoring explicitly and maintaining a good awareness of their environment.”

The airport operator made seven changes or actions afterward, including a mandate that all runway inspections, five of which are carried out each day, be performed facing the oncoming traffic. Driving “with the flow” had started in May based on a request from the air navigation services provider, Airservices Australia, to “expedite runway inspections by operating with the flow of aircraft traffic … where possible to increase efficiency,” says the ATSB. “Since then, most FOD inspections were conducted with the flow of the aircraft traffic.”

Other actions by the airport include investigating technologies that minimize runway entry and occupancy requirements. A likely candidate for the job could be the type of autonomous video/radar-based FOD system in use at Boston Logan and other airports, as discussed in a recent story and video.

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