More than 3,000 community service volunteer pilots to face stringent new standards

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The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) will today announce a suite of new minimum safety standards for pilots who take community service flights (CSF).

Key points

  • Several changes will come into effect on March 19 but must also follow an approval process through both houses of Federal Parliament
  • More than 3,000 Angel Flight pilots will be most affected by the reforms
  • CASA says upgraded safety regulations for volunteer pilots are long overdue

Changes include the introduction of minimum licensing and safety standards plus more stringent medical requirements for pilots.

Pilots, many of who are volunteers, say this would exclude many of them from providing the service which would leave rural and regional patients in the lurch.

CASA said the reforms, which will come into effect March 19, were overdue.

“It’s very important that the pilots who do these community service flights have a bit more experience than just your basic pilot who has just come out of training,” said CASA spokesman Peter Gibson.

“They’re not really appropriate flights for rookies to do.”

One of the organisations affected is Angel Flight, which provides free transport for rural and regional medical patients to non-urgent appointments.

The charity’s CEO Marjorie Pagani said the changes were extreme and would affect thousands of volunteers and patients.

“We have over 3,000 pilots and most of the changes will affect each and every pilot — whether they’re airline, commercial or whether they’re private pilots,” she said.

Calls for change following six deaths

CASA said the impetus for reform came after two Angel Flight crashes in southern Australia, the first in 2011 and the second in 2017.

Investigations found the first crash in Victoria, which killed two passengers and the pilot, was caused by low cloud, rain and fading light which made the pilot disorientated and lose control.

The ATSB is yet to release the final report for the second, which happened near Mount Gambier in South Australia.

After the second crash, there were calls for CASA to improve safety standards.

Peter Gibson said CASA “determined that some slightly higher minimum safety standards were appropriate”.

“It’s not just jumping in your plane on the weekend. It’s an important flight getting sick people to important medical appointments from remote places,” Mr Gibson said.

Presently, CSF safety standards are similar to those which apply to private flights.

Late last year, consultation with industry and the public took place, which closed at the end of January.

The original proposal for new safety standards included:

  • requirements for pilots to have taken off and landed in the same type or class of plane within 30 days;
  • for private license holders to have had a minimum of 400 hours flight time;
  • an increase in the level of maintenance needed for private planes to meet commercial flight standards.

CASA received 230 responses, Angel Flight and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association among them.

CASA says all proposed changes, except the more stringent mechanical standards, will be signed off on today.

Association say changes ‘thoroughly unnecessary’

Ben Morgan, the executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said the association “entirely rejects the changes” and described them as “thoroughly unnecessary”.

“Now what we understand in aviation, and this is a well-known global principle, that if you’re going to look at improving aviation safety we take recommended changes and we overlay them against any accidents or fatalities that may have occurred,” Mr Morgan said.

“In this particular instance, if we take CASA’s changes and we overlay them against historical accidents, what we see is that none of the changes that CASA are proposing would have prevented those fatalities.”

But CASA’s Peter Gibson said the changes were part of a bigger picture.

“It’s about making sure you’ve got more experienced pilots doing community service flights,” he said.

“What we did is look at ways of achieving that.

“We’ve done that through setting some minimum experience levels.

“We think that’s appropriate because if you look at the accidents that have happened, there were clearly some judgements made by those pilots which were incorrect.

“Only a small number of pilots that conduct community service flights will be affected by the changes and will need to get more experience before they continue.”

Volunteers not flying regularly enough to keep up

But for Rockhampton surveyor Neil Richardson, it is not the minimum hours which is of concern, it is the new condition to have flown within a month which will likely exclude him from volunteering.

Mr Richardson has been volunteering as an Angel Flight pilot for more than 12 years.

He owns a plane for his work, but said he does not have time to fly every 30 days as stipulated in the new regulations.

“If I got a call tomorrow I’d have to decline,” he said.

“I’m safe enough, according to CASA’s regulations, to fly myself and anybody right around Australia — into Sydney International Airport — that’s all fine.

“But I can’t take a poor person needing some medical treatment from, say, Theodore to Rockhampton.

“That’s the crazy part.”

Angel Flight is concerned many of their pilots will be affected in a similar way, over the same new “recency” rule

“For the younger people — the flight instructors and the commercial pilots coming through — they will have to go and hire an aircraft every 30 days and do a take-off and landing in that type of aircraft,” said Angel Flight CEO Marjorie Pagani.

“This is unheard of around the rest of the world.

She said over its time, Angel Flight had helped more than 100,000 people on about 46,000 flights.

But she said the charity’s name had been tarnished by two fatal accidents.

“They were both weather related accidents,” she said.

“The ATSB hasn’t released a report in terms of the last one but they both involved weather … cloud.

“Not one of these reforms relates with anything to do with those accidents.”

Flights save 14-hour road trip for rural couple

For people like Rosemary and Robert Johnson, Angel Flight is a lifeline.

Bob, a cancer patient in remission, needs regular flights to Toowoomba for chemotherapy to stave off the disease.

The septuagenarian graziers live an hour outside Injune in Central Queensland — a 14-hour round trip if they were to drive to his oncology appointments.

Mrs Johnson said when the couple started using Angel Flight two years ago it changed her life.

“For me it took away a heap of stress because I had to do the driving … and from home, with the roads that we’ve got, it’s probably seven hours to here.

“It just saved all of that.”

No commercial flights land in Injune and there is no bus either.

They say the service also helps them by keeping them away from their business for shorter periods of time.

Disallowance still possible in Federal Parliament

Today’s announcement is not a change of regulation.

CASA said it was a “licence condition” of the sort for pilots volunteering to fly medical patients.

The changes will come into effect on March 19 but must also follow an approval process through both houses of Federal Parliament.

If any MP raises a motion of disallowance against it, a debate and vote will be brought on which would decide whether the new conditions would continue.

So far, Queensland MPs Bob Katter and Lachlan Millar have voiced their concerns over the new standards.

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