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December 15, 2006
SVG AIR responds to Public Service Union


SVG Air has taken issue with statements issued by the Public Service Union (PSU) which is defending two Air Traffic Controllers who were suspended pending investigation over the disappearance of SVG Air flight J8-VAX. In a release, published in full below, Managing Director Paul Gravel, calls the PSU announcement “highly offensive and inaccurate”. Below is the full text of the SVG Air release.

“The Management and Staff of SVG Air wish to comment publicly on a statement broadcast by the PSU regarding the tragic events of the night of 19th November 2006, resulting in the loss of an aircraft and two people.{{more}}

It was not our intention to discuss this dreadful incident until the official findings of the Directorate of Civil Aviation had been published, but the PSU’s highly offensive and inaccurate announcement leaves us with no alternative.

For the purposes of definition, Air Traffic Controllers, referred to in the PSU’s statement, are individuals who are tasked with the responsibility of controlling aircraft traffic within their designated area – in this instance, E.T. Joshua Airport.

The aircraft VAX left Canouan at 6:42 p.m. on the evening of 19th November and climbed to an altitude of 1,500 feet. The Captain radioed his estimated arrival time in St Vincent as 6:54 p.m. In his next communication with E.T. Joshua’s Control Tower, the Captain reported that he was Bequia inbound, at an altitude of 1,100 feet. The total duration of the flight from Canouan to St Vincent would have been 12 minutes and thus at the time of this latest communication, 6:50 pm, the aircraft would have been four minutes from touchdown, or approximately nine miles from the threshold of E.T. Joshua Airport.

At the time of this last communication, a LIAT Dash-8 aircraft was transiting St Vincent’s West Coast, and also estimated landing at E.T. Joshua at 6:54 p.m. Despite the fact that the VAX aircraft had right of way – and thus Controllers should have instructed this aircraft to land first – no instructions were provided and the pilots of both aircraft were left to sequence themselves.

The Captain of VAX acknowledged the presence of the LIAT aircraft and reported that it was in sight. The two Captains exchanged pleasantries. Yet there remained no positive controlling in the landing sequencing of the aircraft.

LIAT landed, whilst VAX was not heard from again. One can therefore assume that whatever happened to VAX occurred between 6:50 pm and 6:53 pm. Yet the Controllers at E.T. Joshua airport logged the plane as having landed at 6:54 pm. It is beyond belief that the aircraft had been logged as having landed, yet was unobserved by anyone.

Usual procedure is for the Tower to advise an aircraft, when it has landed, as to where it should park on the apron. If the aircraft had landed and proceeded directly to the hangar, the Captain would not have done so without first advising the Tower. No such advice was ever provided – and it is a grotesque affront to the entire pilot body to claim that “it is quite common for small aircraft to land without Air Traffic Control clearance and for them to proceed directly to the hangar without notifying the Tower as required”. This is palpably false.

It is a violation of regulations to land without Air Traffic Control clearance at E.T. Joshua Airport and if, as PSU alleges, the practice is “common” then we would imagine that the Air Traffic Control services have detailed records of such infringements.

It is also usual that when an aircraft’s arrival is more than three minutes beyond the originally notified landing time, an amendment is made by the flight crew. Given the fact that by 6.58 pm – four minutes after the originally notified landing time – no communications had been established with the aircraft and no amendment had been made by the flight crew, it should have quickly been very clear that something was seriously amiss and an alarm should immediately have been raised.

PSU states that no distress call was received. This evidently indicated that the flight had terminated very suddenly – and if persons had been injured and in the water, then the first hour after the termination of the flight would have been crucial and the prime opportunity for recovery of the Pilot and passenger.

PSU states that controllers called the airport in Canouan. Since the Pilot had reported that he was Bequia inbound, such a call seems to have been superfluous and time-wasting. But, more to the point, we wonder why the call was not made until more than two hours after the aircraft was scheduled to land at which point it was Captain Paul Gravel of SVG Air who had to inform the Tower that the aircraft was missing. To wait 30 minutes before raising an alarm may be acceptable in respect of a long-haul flight between London and Barbados but it is inconceivable on a 12-minute domestic flight where communications had been established minutes before landing.

Had VAX chosen to land at another airport, the Pilot would naturally have advised the Tower of his intentions, or communicated by phone after landing. But no such call was made.

PSU refers to a possible mechanical problem on the aircraft two days earlier. This is utterly irrelevant – firstly, the hydraulic leak in question had been properly repaired in Mustique, and secondly, hydraulic systems on a Twin Commander aircraft have no bearing whatsoever on the aircraft’s ability to fly.

SVG Air’s operations staff correctly assumed that the aircraft was on the ramp not only because it had not returned to the hangar, but, more importantly, because the Tower had logged the plane as having landed.

The company’s staff thus had no reason to believe that the aircraft was missing.

The first call made to SVG personnel was at 9:00 pm from Mrs Branker, mother of the passenger, and it was then that the company’s Managing Director swiftly went to the Tower to ascertain what was happening, to send up a search aircraft and to initiate a search with the Coast Guard and private individuals.

The search was long and extensive and we would like to offer our heartfelt thanks to the Prime Minister, who showed deep concern throughout and was instrumental in obtaining the assistance of the Venezuelan Government’s search and rescue helicopter.

We would also like to thank the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for the loan of their helicopter, and Mr Brian Ibrahim for the part that he played in this regard. We also thank the Regional Security Service of Barbados, and the French Government for their tireless assistance.

To our own Coast Guard, and the efforts of Commander Tyrone James, we are eternally grateful, as we are to all the many individuals who spent days and nights searching every crag and cranny of the coastlines of St Vincent and its neighbouring islands. Your efforts can never be re-paid.

We have paid a heavy personal price and would hope that, rather than accepting mediocrity which the PSU appears to feel is the norm, we will be able to elevate ourselves to new heights and ensure that air travel to and from St Vincent and the Grenadines is safer for all concerned.

Paul Gravel