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Tuesday, 3 December 1985
Page: 2852

Senator REYNOLDS(10.30) —This evening I wish to raise a matter of some considerable concern to me regarding the fact that the Royal Australian Air Force is conducting training exercises for its Tactical Fighter Force over Townsville at the moment. These exercises have been conducted for approximately a month. I regret to say that there have been a number of considerably alarming incidents for the community of Townsville and I wish to place them on the public record. On Friday, 29 November 1985 a Mirage fighter with a full load of bombs and drop tanks hit a large bird on take-off over the town common. The engine was damaged and the aircraft lost power. The pilot managed to jettison the bombs and some fuel before returning to Townsville and landing safely. There are some conflicting reports as to where the bombs and the fuel were actually jettisoned. The official report is that these were jettisoned at Cordelia Rocks. However, unconfirmed reports suggest that this may not have occurred as the aircraft was forced to drop before reaching Cordelia Rocks, which is approximately only 15 kilometres from Townsville. There were also reports that the affected aircraft returned to Townsville with a bomb still in place but only half lodged.

I am sure honourable senators would agree that this incident serves to highlight the need for the Department of Defence to investigate seriously this incident and, furthermore, that it illustrates that the Department should not be taking risks with civilian populations by flying jet aircraft, loaded with live bombs, over built-up areas. I do not know whether any such exercises have ever taken place over Canberra, but I doubt very much that the people of Canberra would put up with them. Because the people of Townsville are remote from where all the decisions are taken, it seems as though some of the concerns that have been expressed, not just recently but over a number of years, have fallen on deaf ears.

As if this particular incident were not alarming enough, just 48 hours after it there was a second incident. It occurred on Sunday, 1 December, when another Mirage aircraft was flying over the suburbs in Mount Louisa, which is a residential area. It was reported that the engine failed temporarily as a result of a countersunk screw being ingested. I am sorry that I cannot explain precisely what that means but it certainly sounds alarming. It was reported that the pilot lost control momentarily and considered ejecting even though the plane was carrying live bombs. The unconfirmed rumour circulating in the city today suggests that the pilot, on realising that he was over a built-up area, managed to get the plane under control. The official report of these two incidents was contained in only a small-five-paragraph-statement in which it was reported:

. . . it was unlikely that the mirage with an engine badly damaged in an incident such as a bird strike would crash land in a built up area.

Yet within 48 hours we have had two most disturbing incidents in relation to RAAF operations around Townsville. I want to make my position in regard to the RAAF and its base in Townsville abundantly clear tonight. It is a very important base both to the community of Townsville and to north Queensland and northern Australia.

I certainly do not want anybody coming forward and saying that I am criticising the RAAF or that I have ideas that the RAAF base is inappropriate in that location. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, I do believe that when we have such an obvious conflict between a community-a city of over 100,000-and the needs of the Department of Defence, it is time that such an issue was taken seriously.

I have raised doubts about some of these safety procedures before and I must say that I am particularly concerned that a local reporter has been banned from the base because apparently that reporter was making too many inquiries about these two latest incidents. I would say that it is very much in the interests of that community that full facts be known and, furthermore, that the RAAF personnel make an absolutely definite statement that there will be no further flights over built-up areas, especially with live bombs on board.

There have been other incidents. Earlier this year a Skyhawk jet overturned on the Townsville tarmac and domestic and charter air traffic was disrupted for half of that day. There was another incident in which earth tremors were blamed for certain damage around the city, including a Catholic community school and a day later unexplained tremors resulted in 25 calls of complaint to a local radio station. I believe that this latest incident must be fully investigated. The RAAF needs to reassess completely how it is going to carry out such exercises in the future. I believe that as a first step, it is imperative that a meeting be held in Townsville-not Canberra-of the RAAF, the Department of Aviation, the Bureau of Meterology, representatives of commercial and charter pilots, the two councils and the Trades and Labour Council to discuss a range of professional and community concerns.

Furthermore, as a start, I will detail just some of the questions that are being raised with me in the city, questions that I am not able to answer which I think have to be clearly spelt out in terms of policy in regard to future exercises. Those questions are: What are the future plans of the RAAF in regard to training exercises? How much longer is a city of 100,000 inhabitants going to have to accept the flight of Mirage and FA18 aircraft over the area at hours between 6 a.m. and up to 6 p.m.? There is the noise factor. There are the vibrations that have on occasions caused damage. How much longer-

Senator Collard —We will take them in Rockhampton if you do not want them.

Senator REYNOLDS —If Senator Collard went to one of his local schools and said that there was a chance that they could have the kind of damage that occurred at the Ryan school, if he went to the pensioners and suggested to them that because of the noise factor they could be woken at different hours during the day when they are trying to catch up on a little sleep or if he were to say to the citizens of Rockhampton that there was a chance of either of these incidents over the city, I wonder whether he would have very much support. I think that it is completely irresponsible for a member of this Parliament to treat these two incidents in a frivolous manner.

Senator Collard —Not as irresponsible as going on with the drivel you are going on with.

Senator REYNOLDS —I see. The honourable senator thinks that the possibility of Mirage jets crashing on built-up areas in a city is drivel. I thank Senator Collard. I will make sure that the people of Rockhampton and Townsville take note of the honourable senator's comments. I would like to know where else in Australia such training exercises are carried out in such close proximity to a major city. I also want to know how the RAAF liaises with the Department of Aviation to ensure that there is a clear definition of priorities between civilian and defence use. What is the Department's policy on RAAF aerobatic exercises being conducted over a civilian airport when domestic flights are arriving? This is another aspect of the whole issue that happened last Friday, the day of the first incident. Is it appropriate for FA18 jets to perform low flying exercises over a civilian airport when two commercial aircraft are on the tarmac awaiting unloading procedures?

Why is one of only two runways at Townsville closed at the moment to allow for the parking of the visiting jets and to enable them to bomb up in readiness for training exercises? Is the one other runway adequate to cater for international, domestic and charter flights in all circumstances? Are traffic control operations adequately staffed and equipped and are staff members adequately trained to cope with the demands of those exercises which have started to occur at this level only over the last few weeks? Domestic flights have been delayed by up to 20 minutes by these exercises. Is that reasonable? To what extent are private charter flights rerouted to accommodate these exercises?

It could well be, as Senator Collard seems to think, that this is an unnecessary issue for the concern of the Senate, but I imagine that in the event of a major tragedy over a city in Australia Senator Collard would have rather a different view. I am not saying that either of these incidents would have necessarily resulted in a major tragedy, but the risk of something happening is there. This needs to be investigated and we need to be absolutely sure that there will never be an accident over a built-up area.