On the evening of 8 November 2012, the crew of a Regional Express Saab Aircraft Co. 340B, registered VH-TRX, were conducting a scheduled passenger flight from Sydney to Williamtown (Newcastle Airport), New South Wales, under the instrument flight rules.
After the crew reported on descent to Williamtown, the aircraft was cleared by the approach controller for a visual approach via a right base to runway 12. At 10 NM (19 km) south of Williamtown, the crew transferred to the aerodrome controller. Instead of tracking toward Williamtown as anticipated, the controller observed the aircraft manoeuvring at a greater distance than usual from the runway and advised the crew of their position. The crew then requested radar guidance and were directed toward the airport.
The crew visually identified runway 12 and landed the aircraft about 14 minutes before last light. After landing the crew advised the controller that they were unfamiliar with locating the airport at night.
What the ATSB found
The ATSB found that, in the low light conditions, the captain misidentified a coal loading and storage facility, 6 NM (11 km) south-west of Williamtown, as the airport environment.
What's been done as a result
Following an internal investigation, Regional Express alerted its crews to the possible misidentification of features in the Williamtown area and reminded them of the importance of using navigation equipment to verify their position. In addition, crews were advised that visual approaches were no longer to be conducted at Williamtown during normal operations and additional material on situation awareness and assertiveness skills was also incorporated into existing human factors and non technical skills training.
The Williamtown air traffic control unit reminded its controllers of the need to provide assertive safety alert instructions, including the provision of minimum sector altitudes and prompt position information to aircraft that deviated from a cleared route, or whose observed position differed from that reported.
This occurrence highlights the possibility of crews misidentifying ground features for the airport environment during visual approaches, especially in conditions of poor light. To avoid misleading visual cues during visual approaches, crews should confirm that they have correctly identified and are tracking to the intended destination by crosschecking with the aircraft’s navigation equipment.