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Wednesday, 7 December 1983
Page: 3379


Mr BEAZLEY (Minister for Aviation and Special Minister of State) —For the information of honourable members I present a special report by the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation into the search and rescue action associated with the ditching of Rockwell 685 aircraft, VH-WJC, in Bass Strait on 17 July 1983. I seek leave to made a statement relating to the report.

Leave granted.


Mr BEAZLEY —I thank the House. As honourable members will recall, at about five past three on the afternoon of 17 July, the Rockwell 685, a twin-engine light aircraft, with two people on board, ditched in Bass Strait approximately 35 nautical miles south of Wilson's Promontory. My Department's search and rescue organisation is geared to respond to any aviation emergency, and, as happened in this case, procedures were initiated immediately the aircraft's plight became known. Some 60 minutes later, a person in a lifejacket was sighted by a searching aircraft. Rescue efforts were unsuccessful and contact with the person in the water was lost about 80 minutes after the sighting. Neither occupant of the aircraft has been found and the wreckage of the aircraft has not been recovered.

At the time, and in the aftermath of this accident, much criticism was directed at my Department's search and rescue action and concern was voiced about the effectiveness of the procedures should a similar situation arise involving an airline aircraft. As a result of those representations, and in the public interest, I directed on 18 July, that my Department's search and rescue organisation report on the manner in which the operation has been conducted. After studying that report which contained a chronological account of events, I released it for public information on 4 August. As I stated in a news release on that day, some aspects of the rescue operations, including back-up aircraft for the dropping of survival equipment, needed further investigation. I therefore called for a comprehensive and separate investigation by the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation into all facets of the search and rescue action. I should add that this was in addition to the investigation which the Bureau is currently conducting into the cause of the accident itself. My decision to have the Bureau conduct the separate investigation into the search and rescue operation was based on the fact that it is an expert investigating authority independent of my Department's operational divisions. In addition, the Bureau reports directly to me and to the Secretary of my Department.

The report I am presenting is an impartial study of the Bass Strait search and rescue action from the first intimation of an emergency in the aircraft until the search for survivors was called off at 7 o'clock on the evening of 19 July. The Bureau's report indicates some personnel and system deficiencies relating to the rescue operation and these are detailed in this document. Nevertheless, the investigation reached the important conclusion that no evidence was found of any negligence, failure to accept responsibility, or knowing lack of co-operation by anyone involved in the search and rescue action. There is no doubt that every person who took part in the Bass Strait operation experienced deep personal disappointment and sorrow that the rescue action failed to achieve its goal.

While the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation was conducting its investigation an in-depth examination of the factors involved was also carried out within the Department in order to identify any weaknesses in the action and in the facilities that were available at the time. This is a standard procedure. The end of a search and rescue action does not merely mean cleaning up the Rescue Co -ordination Centre and locking the door until the next emergency occurs. That would indicate a complacency which has no place in vital lifesaving operations. My Department's search and rescue organisation is dedicated to providing an emergency service of the highest order-a level which the air travelling public expects and to which it is entitled.

To ensure that Australia maintains its high reputation for search and rescue efficiency, I believe that the time is right for a review of search and rescue arrangements for civil aviation. I have, therefore, appointed an expert three- man committee of review to examine and report on these arrangements and to recommend any changes considered necessary. The committee will be headed by Mr R . M. Whitecross, a former Assistant Secretary, Air Traffic Services, with my Department. Mr Whitecross, who retired in May this year, had a great deal of experience in search and rescue and in aircraft accident investigation in the course of his 35-year career in civil aviation. The other members of the committee are: Mr A. L. Bedsor, a widely experienced businessman, aircraft owner and skilled pilot, and a past member of the Executive of the General Aviation Association, and Wing Commander L. A. Naylor of the Royal Australian Air Force, an expert in military search and rescue operations.

Broadly, the committee has been asked to examine and report on the suitability of the existing search and rescue arrangements for civil aircraft in the Australian area of responsibility including the allocation of responsibilities between various departments and authorities. The committee will begin its work immediately and I expect to have its report and recommendations in about three months. Our aviation search and rescue system has long been held in high regard both here and overseas, so much so that my Department's search and rescue training courses are used for training search and rescue mission co-ordinators not only from other Australian emergency services but also from countries in Africa, South East Asia and the South Pacific area. In conclusion, I wish to impress upon honourable members that it is my intention that the high standard of our search and rescue capabilities will be maintained.