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Tuesday, 5 May 1987
Page: 2565

Mr NEHL —I ask the Minister for Aviation: In view of widespread public disquiet and concern, will he initiate an urgent, open and external, not internal, inquiry into the efficiency of search and rescue operations carried out by following the extremely embarrassing and damaging revelation that the official search and rescue operation for a crashed Cessna 172 near Mount Banda Banda in the division of Cowper, costing over $1m and using nearly 40 aircraft, including 22 helicopters, failed to locate any sign of the aircraft but that a friend of the dead pilot, who had been excluded from the official search, was able to locate the wreckage in two hours after the week-long official search had been called off?

Mr PETER MORRIS —The search and rescue service which operates in the event of emergencies-missing aircraft, missing vessels at sea-is, I believe, one that the House would recognise as an essential community service. In the case that the honourable member refers to, he would be aware that the gentleman to whom he has just referred participated in the very early stages of the search in reflying the route that it was believed had been taken by the pilot of the missing aircraft. The people who participated in the search were people of experience and professionalism and included some of the local operators.

I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone in this chamber when I express to the families, the bereaved, our deepest sympathy for the tragedy that has occurred. The crashed aircraft was located in about the centre of the search area. The area had been searched on several occasions. The crash site had been flown over a number of times by the searching aircraft. Various comments have been made about what kinds of aircraft could have been used-whether single-engined, twin-engined or helicopters. In this case, all three types of aircraft, including single-engined aircraft, were used. But in the main helicopters were used. In fact, helicopters overflew the crash site.

The honourable member will appreciate that in a search of this nature, where there is dense foliage and rugged country involved, the aircraft is of very small dimensions in relation to the environment. It can be overlooked easily. In fact, in some cases in the past, exactly the same thing has occurred. The missing aircraft has punctured the tree canopy, crashed into the ground and not been sighted even though aircraft have constantly flown up and down over that site. I have no reason to believe other than that the best of professionalism was followed in the organisation and planning of the search. That is evidenced by the fact that the aircraft was located eventually in the centre of the area being searched. The search area was developed from the last known radar position of the missing aircraft. I am sure that no one in this chamber would want to reflect upon the professionalism, commitment or dedication of all those people who participated in the search. If the thrust of the honourable member's question were to be followed through, he really means that if searchers go out to look for a missing aircraft or vessel, they must find that missing aircraft or vessel.

In this case the search was in the correct area, it was professionally organised, it involved members of the defence forces, chartered aircraft and local operators, but given the circumstances, the nature of the search that was undertaken and the nature of the area being searched, the searchers did not locate the missing aircraft. I have no reason to believe on the information available to me that other than the best of professionalism was followed in the conduct of the search. It is unfortunate that all those people who participated in the search were not able to locate the missing aircraft earlier.