News State Victoria News Essendon plane crash: Report finds no engine failure, pre-crash fault

Essendon plane crash: Report finds no engine failure, pre-crash fault

Essendon plane crash
Five people died in the Essendon DFO plane crash, and how it occurred is now known. Photo: Getty
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There is no evidence to suggest the plane that crashed into a Melbourne shopping centre last month experienced “pre-impact” engine failure or had pre-existing faults, a preliminary report says.

The preliminary Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report also revealed that pilot Max Quartermain made a distress call to the Essendon air traffic control tower soon after take-off, repeating the word “mayday” seven times.

Four American tourists and Mr Quartermain died when the Beechcraft B200 Super King Air plane crashed into the DFO shopping centre at Essendon, in Melbourne’s north, on February 21.

The crash was described as Victoria’s worst civil aviation accident in 30 years, but investigators have not determined what caused the plane to plunge into the back of shops and a car park opposite the busy Tullamarine Freeway.

An aerial overview of the crash site. Photo: ATSB
An aerial overview of the crash site. Photo: ATSB

The ATSB report said on-site examination of the wreckage did not identify any pre-existing faults with the aircraft that could have contributed to the accident.

“The examination found that the cores of both engines were rotating and that there was no evidence of pre-impact failure of either engine’s internal components,” the report said.

“However a number of engine components were retained for further examination and testing.”

Recorded air traffic control radio calls revealed that the pilot broadcast a mayday call before the crash.

“The pilot repeated the word ‘MAYDAY’ seven times within that transmission,” the report said.

“No additional information regarding the nature of the emergency was broadcast.”

DFO air crash report
A photo showing damage to the roof of the DFO complex. Photo: ATSB

Jason Middleton, an aviation expert from the University of New South Wales, said no conclusions were drawn in such preliminary reports because more evidence could later be found.

“There are other possible explanations for the fact that the engines may still appear to be operable,” Professor Middleton said.

“For example, there could’ve been a fuel supply problem.

“That means either contaminated fuel or insufficient [fuel] or fuel pump failures or something of that nature.”

Take-off took ‘longer than normal’: witnesses

The weather conditions were fine when the plane took off from Essendon Airport en route to King Island, Tasmania.

The ATSB report said witnesses reported the take-off roll along the runway was “longer than normal”.

“That is an indication that something wasn’t perfectly correct,” Professor Middleton said.

“The runway at Essendon is 1500 metres long and it looks like, from the report, that the aircraft left the ground with approximately 400 metres of runway, which meant it had used up 1100 metres of runway.

“That is probably much longer than normal.”

After becoming airborne, the nose of the plane moved to the left, according to witnesses.

Airservices Australia data indicated the plane reached a maximum height of about 49 metres above ground level while tracking in an arc to the left of the runway before crashing.

The landing gear was extended and locked in place.

The report also said there was no audio recording of the incident because the cockpit voice recorder failed.

That failure is also under investigation.

“Every company has a standard checklist for every airplane and there’s no reason not to have the cockpit voice recorder on if you have it available,” Professor Middleton said.

“That’s not suggestive of a pilot failure, maybe it wasn’t working.

“Not having that information doesn’t help of course, because whilst there was a single pilot, he may have been mumbling to himself while he was doing what he was doing.”

The ATSB has identified 12 areas for further investigation.

  • Examination of propellers, angle of blades at impact

  • Examination of engine, airframe components

  • Further interviews with witnesses

  • Analysis of witness reports

  • Review of plane’s maintenance, operational records

  • Review of the weather conditions

  • Review of the approval of the shopping mall

  • Analysis of aircraft performance and other operational factors

  • Review of the pilot’s medical and flying history

  • Review of operating processes, approvals

  • Determining the reason for the cockpit voice recorder failure

  • Further analysis of recorded information

Chris Cowan, the chief executive of Essendon Fields — which includes Essendon Airport and the shopping centre — said the interim report had clarified some key facts.

He said much of the speculation about the cause had been “wrong” and “not appropriate”.

There had been criticism that an airport should not be located in a densely populated area, and the ATSB is continuing to examine the planning approval of the shopping centre.

However, Mr Cowan said the accident “could have happened at any airport in the world”.

“It’s a reality of modern society that airports operate in close proximity to urban environments,” Mr Cowan said.

“Airport land use and air space planning always includes CASA [Civil Aviation Safety Authority] and Air Services approvals, based upon internationally accepted approaches.”

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