The answer to this inflammatory question may be ‘No.’ But it needs to be asked and only the ATSB can provide an answer, amid all of the other demands being made on its limited resources, and, in my opinion, sometimes limited courage.
The incident occurred just before 9.30 am last Friday, 6 January, when an Emirates A380 under taxi is claimed to have intruded onto the main north-south runway (16R) causing a Japan Airlines 777 to abort its takeoff, and come to a halt variously described as close to, ornot close to the giant Airbus.
It is further claimed in private correspondence and on Pprune.org, the pilot rumor network, that a Malaysia Airlines 747-400 cleared to land on 16R chose to break off its approach and go around because of the obvious risk that neither the Emirates or Japan Airlines flight would have cleared the active runway in time.
The Malaysia flight go around is apparent on the Webtrak archive for Sydney Airport, but the actual events on the ground aren’t clear because when jets are stationary they do not appear on the radar based tracking app.
Without prejudice, the ATSB may chose not to investigate because everything worked as intended when ground separation was compromised, or, alternatively, investigate because it was compromised.
It’s a fine point, and there is enough variation in the unofficial information about the incident to go either way.
Like most airports of size, Sydney Airport has an interesting history of serious incidents.
The two most astonishing incidents occurred in 1990 and in 1991, just as the severe operational pressures of SIMOPS or simultaneous operations of what were then just intersecting north-south and east-west runways was pushing the limits of prudence as far as some of the airlines of those times were concerned.
At that time US carriers United and Continental banned their flights from using Sydney Airport whenever SIMOPS was being used. It was one of the issues that added to the push to built a third runway, creating two parallel north-south runways and ending the risks inherent in the procedures that were then being used to cope with traffic growth at the airport.
On 11 September 1990 an empty Qantas 747-300 was being towed across the main north south runway when a Cathay Pacific 747-300 was taking off for Hong Kong. On seeing the immediate risk of collision the Cathay Pacific pilots rotated early and steeply cleared the top of the Qantas jet having judged that if they attempted to abort their take off roll they would inevitably hit the towed jet.
On 12 August 1991 an Ansett A320 was on a final approach to the east to west runway across the eastern suburbs when a Thai DC-10 disobeyed the SIMOPS related instructed to hold short of its intersection with the south to north runway on which it had landed.
Waiting on a taxiway close to that intersection was a Qantas 747 also loaded with passengers. The A320 missed the nose of the DC-10 by a reported six to seven metres. There were 667 people on board the three airliners, and in an interview in The Bulletin the captain of the Qantas jet said he seriously contemplated ordering an emergency evacuation because of the risk that a fireball explosion from a collision between the Ansett and Thai jets would engulf the third airliner but had realised there was insufficient time left in which to act.
Whether the Emirates/Japan Airlines incident will command the same scrutiny as these earlier events remains to be seen.
By Ben Sandilands