One of the planes was a Piper Aztec, C6-JEF, top, while the other aircraft was a Western Air turbo-prob aircraft, C6-KID, above, which was heading to Grand Bahama with 25 passengers.
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The recent near mid-air collision at Nassau's airport must serve as "a wake-up call" for the aviation industry to ensure all regulations are being enforced, a leading operator warned yesterday.
Captain Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas president and chief executive, told Tribune Business that the investigation into September's close miss involving a private aircraft and Western Air plane carrying 25 passengers exposed the potential dangers from failing to follow the "checks and balances" set out in industry processes.
Calling for the focus to be placed on systems, "not the individuals", in the aftermath of the report, Captain Butler said the findings showed why the authorities must ensure all pilots and air traffic controllers possess the necessary licences, qualifications and certifications - including passing all required medical tests.
Arguing that the Bahamian civil aviation industry is "safe", the Sky Bahamas chief said that while hundreds of planes took-off and landed daily at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) without incident the sector needed to continually focus on making improvements where necessary.
'It's a system check and a wake-up call," he told Tribune Business of the report by the Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID). "I wouldn't say aviation is unsafe; look at the planes coming in and out of here daily. It's safe, but anything we can do to improve and keep our hands on the wheel we must do.
"The aviation industry is safe. These things happen. It's the human part of the system. You have software, hardware and interaction with the environment. When you don't have the proper checks and balances in place these things happen.
"We have to keep looking at the system. Who's driving at the wheel? The good thing about the harmonisation of the rules is they cannot be different from anywhere else. We have to be compliant with ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation), and that's the kind of thing we need to ensure is happening."
The AAID report revealed that the two planes, the Western Air turbo prop and the privately-owned C6-JEF Piper Aztec, took off at the same time from different ends of the same runway. This occurred at 7am on September 22 last year, with the commercial flight not realising another plane was flying towards it directly in its path until it passed overhead.
The investigation found that the chief cause of the near-collision was the Piper Aztec pilot's failure to follow air traffic control's instructions, which resulted in his craft taking off from the wrong runway. However, the AAID also found that pilot and air traffic control licensing, training and qualifications were "noteworthy" issues that contributed to the near-miss.
The report said the Western Air flight crew likely failed to notice the aircraft at the opposite end of the runway because they were completing pre-flight checks. The air traffic controller who oversaw the incident had an expired medical certificate and no licence, while the Piper Aztec pilot's licence was subsequently suspended due to medical concerns.
Zeroing in on the licensing, training and medical certification weaknesses exposed by the near-miss, Captain Butler said they highlighted systemic - rather than individual - failings by questioning whether proper personnel oversight was taking place in critical sectors of the aviation industry.
"I know one of the challenges they have there," he told Tribune Business. "Air traffic controllers are supposed to be licensed, and the reason to have a licence is you go through training, demonstrate competency, and then go through retraining to demonstrate competency. But system checks aren't happening.
"I look at the system. Why is this happening? One of the things that caught my attention in the report is the pilots were completing their pre-take off checks. They should not be doing that on the runway. All that stuff has to be done, and they should have systems to warn them of planes nearby."
"There's a system we need to look at, not the individuals," Captain Butler continued. "Look at the law, the regulations. Do we have the qualified people in place? Are we going out and doing inspections and, when things like this happen, what is being done to avoid it happening again?
"Do air traffic controllers have the licences? Are we making sure they have them? If they're required to go for specialist medicals to be checked out, are they going? Are we going to make sure before they sit at the desk that they are qualified for their assignment? The same thing on the other side. If the pilot had medical problems how does he get in the cockpit before it's checked?"
The AAID report found that the Bahamas Air Navigation Services Division (BANSD), which oversees air traffic control, lacked a documented process to track the medical status of air traffic controllers. No personnel had the required licences, while several were operating without the required current medical certificates.
A three-member BANSD internal review board, formed on October 8, 2018, to respond to the incident drafted 14 recommendations to address “systemic internal deficiencies” within the air traffic system, but these sensitive recommendations were not included in the AAID report.
The AAID recommended that controllers face more frequent and structured refresher classes, noting the controller involved in the incident had attended no such course since 2007. The controller was subsequently removed from active duty and underwent re-qualification training. He was then subjected to a period of supervised oversight.
The AAID recommended that BANSD address its manpower shortage issues but, by the time the investigation was finalised, it had still not ensured air traffic controllers had the required licences. Nor was there any process of record keeping or tracking provided to address identified shortcomings.