The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) 2012–13 Annual Report outlines performance against the outcome and program structure in the 2012–13 Infrastructure and Transport Portfolio Budget Statements. 

Chief Commissioner’s review 2012–13

2012–13 was the ATSB’s fourth year in its current form as a fully independent agency within the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio. It has been a productive year. Our investigations yielded a range of important safety messages that touched every element of transport, from the manufacturing of vehicles through to the effectiveness of operators’ systems and the routine procedures used in the course of a working day. Especially satisfying has been the conclusion of several unusually large and complex investigations.

It was also a year in which we developed as an organisation, moving beyond the consolidation of our business systems and governance arrangements, and devoting more of our attention to enhancing our systems and capabilities. By improving and expanding these resources, the ATSB is able to bring a better perspective to bear—both on transport safety in Australia and on our own operations. We can now identify safety trends sooner, gauge the implications more thoroughly, and share our insights with the transport community more quickly and more directly.

One of the most significant improvements has been the augmentation of our enterprise system, the Safety Investigation Information Management System (SIIMS). SIIMS is an electronic management system that captures and organises information about transport accidents, tracking them from the point of notification through to the completion of investigation. The new version gives our investigators additional tools to manage their work while affording our managers greater visibility of our work on hand. This will help us to plan and manage our workloads more effectively and to gauge the implications of shifting priorities as new issues requiring investigation emerge.

We have also developed an automated event risk classification system. This will assign a risk to every aviation occurrence reported to the ATSB, based on the type of operation and type of occurrence. The event risk ratings are used in a number of ways. In 2012–13 ratings were provided twice a day to managers for every immediately reportable matter and all notable routine reportable matters in order to assist in their decisions whether to initiate investigations.

We have further developed our capability to analyse our statistical information and to identify worrying trends. We are now sharing these new insights with important stakeholders in the industry in quarterly bulletins.

Finally, while our investigators have proven themselves capable of unravelling the most complex of events (and machinery), we know that the greatest insight in the world is worthless if it is not applied. Our mission is not only to investigate safety, but to share what we have learned with the transport community. In the past year, we have worked to advance the ways in which we disseminate our message. A focus on strategic communications has helped us to improve the clarity of our investigation reports so that they can be better understood by readers without technical knowledge.

Users of smartphones and other mobile devices are now able to view our website easily, thanks to the application of advanced web technology and our use of social media. 


The aviation investigation teams completed 43 complex and 99 short aviation accident and incident investigations during the past year. Several of these garnered considerable national and international interest. Key accomplishments included the completion of one of the largest and most complex investigations in our organisation’s history, the uncontained engine failure on a Qantas A380 over Batam Island, Indonesia, which occurred on 4 November 2010 (AO-2010-089); pursuing the issue of potentially dangerous fuel tanks in Robinson R44 helicopters; and spelling out the implications of the fatal accident involving an air ambulance rescue operation in the Budderoo National Park near Wollongong, NSW.

The completion of the Qantas A380 investigation is a matter of particular satisfaction. After the initial discovery of the fatigue-cracked oil feed stub pipe that led to the engine failure, we continued to work with the engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, to confirm how the manufacturing fault had occurred and how to revise their procedures to prevent recurrence. We also worked with Airbus and international regulators to highlight the implications of the accident for airframe certification standards. Our report, released on 29 June 2013, was the culmination of two and a half years of hard work and cooperation with other agencies, and spelled out issues with significant implications for air safety around the world.

The past year also saw the resolution of a different safety issue, one that tragically claimed several lives. We investigated three accidents in Australia involving post-accident fires in R44 helicopters. This led us to reinforce previous warnings to operators about the need to replace rigid aluminium fuel tanks by the deadline of 30 April 2013. As a consequence, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) issued an Airworthiness Directive that effectively grounded any remaining R44s that had not complied by the deadline.

Another significant accident involved an air ambulance helicopter, where paramedics were winched from the aircraft to rescue an injured canyoner. During the winching, a paramedic and the canyoner fell on to some rocks and the paramedic was fatally injured. Following the investigation, the Ambulance Service of New South Wales and the helicopter operator took safety action in respect of the operating scope applied to retrieval operations and procedures used by helicopter emergency crews. In addition, paramedics, in their role as ambulance rescue crewmen, are now required to conduct annual night winching currency training.

The release of our investigation report into the ditching of the Westwind Jet at Norfolk Island that occurred on 18 November 2009 (AO-2009-072) became a subject of the ABC’s 4 Corners program and was commented upon by other media outlets. A review of the investigation by a Senate Committee was launched late in 2012. The ATSB was required to make a number of detailed submissions, provide a great many documents and attend a number of hearings at Parliament House. The enquiry report was released on 23 May 2013. The Commission has carefully considered the report and has developed an action plan in response to matters raised in the report. The Australian Government is considering its response to the Committee.


The Marine Investigation team completed 11 investigations during the year, two of which were particularly significant for safe work in and around ships. The first concerned the grounding of the general cargo ship Tycoon at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island (MO-2012-001). Our findings on that accident have delivered important safety messages to the managers of the port. Following this incident, the port operator commenced a program of inspections, replaced important equipment and developed a handbook and safety training.

The second accident reinforced the ATSB’s ongoing concern about the safety of stevedores and crew members on board cargo ships, an issue tragically exemplified by the death of a stevedore who was crushed by aluminium ingots on board Weaver Arrow (MO-2012-010). The accident has resulted in safety actions intended to address the handling of such cargo as well as the issue of stevedore fatigue.

We also issued a highly significant report which made important recommendations about the safety of coastal pilotage in Queensland coastal waters (M1-2010-011). This is particularly topical as Australia sees the development of port facilities and the increasing transit of shipping carrying coal and gas along these sensitive regions, including the Great Barrier Reef.


From 20 January 2013, the ATSB assumed primary responsibility for rail investigations across Australia, as part of the new national system for rail safety. This expanded national role in rail transport safety reflects the progressive implementation of the August 2011 Intergovernmental Agreement on Rail Safety Regulation and Investigation Reform. As the national system is implemented in each State, the ATSB is assuming its expanded role there as the rail safety investigator. Since January, we have worked collaboratively with our state and territory colleagues to ensure adequate resources are or will be available to respond quickly and efficiently to safety events as they occur. The Rail Investigation Team completed six complex and three short investigations during the year.

Safety priorities

Last year, for the first time, the Commission identified eight safety priorities for the coming year.  These represent major risk areas that need ongoing and heightened attention from the Australian transport community:

  • General aviation pilots—General aviation (GA) pilots continue to die in accidents that are mostly avoidable. Prominent among these accidents are those that involve low flying, wirestrikes, flying visually into bad weather, mismanagement of partial power loss and poor fuel management.
  • Handling approach to land—There are a worrying number of cases where stability is not adequately assessed or uncommon manoeuvres are mishandled during an aircraft’s approach to land.
  • Data input errors—Human error involving incorrect data entry continues to cause concern.
    In some cases, aircraft systems and operators’ flight management procedures are not catching these errors.
  • Safety around non-towered aerodromes—Non-towered aerodromes continue to pose a risk to aircraft due to poor communication between pilots, ineffective use of see-and-avoid techniques and failure to follow common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) and other procedures.
  • Robinson R44 fuel tanks—A significant number of R44 helicopters were not fitted with bladder-type fuel tanks and other modifications detailed in manufacturer’s documentation that are designed to provide for improved resistance to post-impact fuel leaks and enhanced survivability prospects in the event of an accident.
  • Under-reporting of occurrences—An ATSB investigation during 2011–12 into under-reporting of wirestrikes revealed approximately 40 per cent under-reporting of incidents and accidents. While there are a range of factors that could influence under-reporting of this particular occurrence type, it is likely that there is under-reporting of other occurrences, particularly those associated with GA operations.
  • Safe work on rail—The ATSB has investigated several accidents that have occurred when maintenance work was being carried out on or near railway tracks. Conducting work on or near a railway track can be dangerous if safe working rules and procedures have not been correctly implemented to protect the worksite.
  • Marine work practices—The ATSB has investigated several incidents involving unsafe working practices in the maritime industry. These incidents resulted in serious injury of death following falls from heights, crush, and equipment that exploded.

Upon release of our report (MI-2010-011) into Queensland coastal pilotage in October 2012, we added this as a further risk area. In order to publicise our concerns, and educate stakeholders about what they can do to improve their own safety, we developed a communications initiative, SafetyWatch. SafetyWatch is featured on the ATSB website and forms the focus for our industry and stakeholder engagement.

Outlook for 2013–14

Last year I commented that, with 56 larger aviation investigations on hand at the end of the financial year, we had reached what I judged to be a sustainable level of activity that was allowing us to meet our targets for timely investigations while maintaining the high quality of our work. We conclude this year with 65 larger aviation investigations on hand. This higher number reflects the level of resources we had to apply to our more complex investigations and some unplanned activities such as the Senate Inquiry. It also reflects that we are not fully meeting our performance standards for delivering investigations in a timely fashion. As we report elsewhere, more work needs to be done to improve the timeliness of our investigation reporting.

Like most government agencies, we are subject to the resource constraints imposed by the government’s efficiency and savings initiatives. This, combined with our work on the implementation of the National Rail Reforms and the new responsibilities they have brought, resulted in a year in which heavy commitments meant that we had to divert resources from other investigations with consequent delays.

The ATSB has never been resourced to undertake investigations into every accident or incident that occurs. Rather, it is necessary for us to be strategic, investigating those accidents and incidents that are likely to yield safety improvements for transport operators and the travelling public.

We can expect to continue to work in a resource-constrained environment during the foreseeable future and will need to be creative in finding ways to deliver the high quality expected by the government and the Australian public. Our responsibilities have grown in the rail sector and we are also acutely conscious of the effect on our available resources of the demands of one or more complex investigations.

More than ever we will need to be selective in deciding what matters to investigate in order to achieve the greatest value and confidence for the travelling public. Under current and forecast resource limits, a time is approaching when we will have to be more constrained as to which investigations and activities we can undertake and as to the extent of those investigations we do undertake. While we will continue to take all possible steps to mitigate it, the risk that we will miss an important issue increases as our resources diminish.

We continue to remain alert and prepared to handle a major accident in aviation, marine or rail and recognise the exceptional effort that would be required to respond. To ensure that we remain alert and responsive, our staff members continue to participate in planning and exercises and we continue to learn from our overseas counterparts.

We also continue to work with our neighbours in the region and to be an active and constructive player in the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization and other international forums that have a role in transport safety. I am pleased that we have been able to assist our neighbours in the region during the year, using development cooperation funding from AusAID.

While the times are challenging, I remain enormously proud of the dedication and the accomplishments of our investigators and other staff. The technical knowledge and expertise within the ATSB is world-class. I thank the investigation and supporting staff of the ATSB whose efforts and expertise consistently enable us to provide an essential service to the Australian travelling public.


Martin Dolan
Chief Commissioner/CEO



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