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A Look at News Corp’s Article on Virgin Australia’s Gold Coast Near Miss

Aviation is more than familiar with the barrage of junk journalism we get from major syndicated news services. The digital age has ensured that their editorial focus has shifted from genuine investigative pieces to the drip-fed crap that often wallpapers sites like News.com.au and CourierMail – apparently catering for our insatiable need for new and fresh information. The digital evolution has not only created generations of media-hungry consumers, but also a new breed of journalist that determines subject matter based on Twitter trends or “What’s Hot on YouTube”. If either of those avenues fail them, they’ll turn to Viral aggregators or cute cats. It doesn’t seem to matter what the content is… as long as there’s new content to publish.

The result of this media focus is the bastardisation and over-hyped editorial bias of anything aviation news related. Sadly, very few people – including those that proclaim themselves as experts on national TV or by way of podcasts or websites – usually have any idea what they’re talking about.

Around 9.15am on Sunday the 12th of November, a Virgin Australia Boeing 737 was on approach to Gold Coast’s Runway 32 when, during the approach, separation standards appeared that they might be compromised. As a precaution, the aircraft flew a standard go-around without incident and returned for an on-time arrival.

Robyn Ironside and Peter Hall first published their understanding of the occurrence we’ve just described on the Courier Mail website as “Beachgoers watch near plane collision”. It later appeared as “Virgin plane and light aircraft in close call over Gold Coast airport”. Based on apparent reports from “parents watching their children enjoy nippers at nearby Bilinga club”, the writers made the determination that the go-around was a near collision.

The article was initially published on the Courier Mail and later syndicated on a number of other associated websites. The story was later plagiarised by picked up by a number of others not represented by the news conglomerate. The problem with fishing for news, as is often the case with second-tier news providers, is that they perpetuate distorted facts and negligent reporting without independent checking, verification or accountability.

The article is filled with inaccuracies and very conflicting information; we’ll try to make sense of it.

First, a look at the News Corp video (based on Flight Aware data) that the author believes represents the flight path of the involved aircraft.

Video not supported.

 

Despite the numerous references to the Boeing 737 conducting a go-around because of a Cessna taking off from Runway 32, the video accompanying shows what the authors obviously identified as a near miss (in-flight) – and it wasn’t.

When the video stops and shows what News Corp claims is two aircraft coming into close proximity, requiring what they claim is an aggressive turn, it is actually two aircraft operating at least 5 miles laterally from each other (over 9 kilometres) and nearly 10,000 feet vertically. To say that they don’t present a threat to each other is an understatement. More on this below.

What Actually Happened

The only go-around data recorded by Flight Aware on the morning of Sunday the 12th was Velocity 511 (VOZ511), a scheduled passenger service from Sydney to the Gold Coast.

Based on Flight Aware data, the flight path is illustrated as follows:

The flight path is completely normal until final. The aircraft conducts a go-around and makes a slight left turn by about 15 or 20 degrees before conducting another left turn at the upwind end of the airport, and then completes a visual circuit to land.

A couple of minutes prior to VOZ511’s go-around, a Tiger A320 with the flight number of TGW607 departed on the APAGI departure. It’s this aircraft that will later be identified by the author (in their video) as coming into conflict with VOZ511. The next aircraft in queue for departure, VH-RJB, a Cessna Citation (business jet), was either slow to take off or the tower didn’t properly judge the arrival of VOZ511. Either way, separation was compromised. No big deal.

We put the following video together very quickly so please excuse the sloppiness. It shows the actual go-around and discredits the Courier Mail’s claim that there was a “near miss” in flight.

Video not supported.

 

The Cessna Citation jet isn’t consistent with the reports of a “tiny Cessna” that was reported in the article. The description conjures up images of a small piston engine aircraft in the minds of most people while a multi-million dollar business jet elicits a different reaction. While not overly important, it does further discredit the article in question.

The profile view constructed from Flight Aware doesn’t show the point from which the go-around was conducted. Because Flight Aware uses a predictive feature at times, the profile plot shows the aircraft as low as 700 feet (over 2 miles, or nearly 4 kilometres, laterally), although it could have been lower.

It appears that the aircraft was fully configured when an instruction for the go-around was issued (or when the crew initiated the go-around) as they were approaching or were just past Terranora Creek. After making a slight left turn, the aircraft continues to approximately 1400 feet where another left turn is made before the crew conduct a visual left circuit at 2500 feet. From interpolating data, it appears that if the controller had another 5 or 10 seconds, the go-around wouldn’t have been necessary.

Bilinga Surf Club is on the eastern side of the main A1 motorway, over 1.5 kilometres from the runway, and those on the beach have no view of the runway whatsoever.

Contrary to the ill-informed diatribe in the article, the aircraft didn’t pass over the main beach. As with every single RW32 arrival, the Boeing 737 would have passed over Terranora Creek. If this were the case, and if this is where the youth surf group were congregated, the aircraft would be passing significantly higher over the inland shoreline than other arrivals – hardly a big concern. The aircraft would have also passed within sight of Currumbin Creek to the north, but at this point, the aircraft was at nearly 1300 feet and climbing (around 1000 feet of vertical airspace separated the two aircraft in question at this point). Either way, the shoreline doesn’t provide a view of the runway or tarmac area. Any eyewitness account would be flawed.

Is a Go-around Dangerous?

Despite the sensational bullshit from the article, there was never any danger. Go-arounds are conducted for countless reasons; from unstable approaches, separation standards, to unfavourable wind shifts. They’re a completely normal and everyday occurrence that doesn’t warrant any kind of media attention.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority claims that 800 go-arounds are conducted each year although it’s believed that these are ATC-initiated procedural instructions. The figure is actually closer to 5000… and over 20,000 if the entire register is considered. It’s impossible to have a clear picture of go-around data (including missed approaches) because of the way it’s recorded and/or reported.

What is a Loss of Separation Assurance?

From the ATSB website:

A loss of separation assurance (LOSA) occurs when there has not been a clear application of a separation standard. This can happen for a range of reasons, and does not mean there has been any infringement of separation standards.

When two aircraft experience an infringement of the minimum separation distance (which varies depending on the airspace classification), it is referred to as a loss of separation (LOS). A LOS does not mean that the aircraft were at any risk of colliding, or that the incident was a ‘near miss’, it simply means that separation standards were not maintained.

The ATSB will often publish LOSA reports and publish them on their website. This is done purely to ensure the highest of standards… not because they represent a serious infraction worth investigating.

The Article and Journalistic Integrity

It’s a challenge to identify with facts in this article – so we won’t try. Needless to say, the sensational editorial bias and deceptive headlines suggest an incident far removed from what actually occurred. It was link-bait. Period.

The only news to come from this article is the lack of understanding both Robyn Ironside and Peter Hall have with regard to the industry that they claim to represent. We engaged in a dialogue with Robyn Ironside on Twitter shortly after the article was published, although she’s since deleted any tweets referencing our conversion (so much for accountability). Nonetheless, we made screenshots .

Robyn Ironside claims to have reported the article as a Loss of Separation Assurance with regard to all the facts. You decide for Courier Mail .

Ironside also claims to have made calls to the ATSB, Airservices Australia, and Virgin Australia for information. Of course it’s likely that none of them would have been aware of the incident that early after the occurrence… particularly on a Sunday. Why? It’s no big deal.

Ironside further illustrates her ignorance and lack of adequate investigation with the comment, “Had there not been ATC intervention who knows”. Pilots fly aircraft, Robyn, not ATC. Had ATC not intervened the outcome would have been the same.

Ironside seems to have gathered only as many facts as were necessary to support the statements made by the reporting witness. There’s an inherent editorial-bias that many journalists fall victim to in the pursuit of a story that has the potential to present as sensational or viral-worthy. Even when looking for Flight Aware data, Ironside has found footage that seems to support her assertion of a near-miss even though, in actuality, the footage had nothing to do with the event she describes… and doesn’t actually show any kind of infraction. Ironside and Hall have literally manufactured an incident out of nothing.

Journalists have an ethical, moral and professional responsibility not to distort or manufacture facts. In reality, the “facts” reported to a journalist are nothing more than hearsay evidence, and this evidence forms only a small part of any argument that might support any kind of fact. In this case, however, Ironside has used a single anonymous source (with their own possible ‘aircraft noise’ agenda, as is common around the Gold Coast) and a flawed video to launch an unwarranted attack on aviation safety.

Publishers often refer to their “harm minimisation” strategies that are used to measure the damage that their articles might cause. In this case, harm is done to, but far from limited to, the Gold Coast Aiport, Virgin Australia and those passengers on board the airliner that now believe that they were involved in a near miss… and the harm or damage is all predicated on false or manufactured data. This blatant and disregard for factual reporting can only be seen as professionally negligent, leaving the publisher and/or author liable for civil prosecution.

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”
– Albert Einstein

The news article had some minor changes and corrections when published on News.com.au and a few other syndicated websites, so it’s possible we had moderate success after taking Ironside to task on Twitter. Still, every subsequent article was almost worse that the last.

Ironside has little option but to revise her story, issue a correction, and delete the offending video.

Aviation Media Watch

As an industry we’ve become far too forgiving of incompetence and misrepresentation. Very little of what we read and hear from ‘aerospace experts’, podcasters and aviation journalists comes close to representing the broader industry. Like Ironside, many call themselves an aviation journalist, but don’t know the first thing about aviation. This has to change.

For the reason just described, we’re going to have out own little ‘Media Watch’ column where we’ll pull apart some of the information propagated in the media and dissect it in search of the truth. If you come across some mediocre reporting, let us know.

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9 comments

  1. Daniel

    Had there been not ATC intervention, who knows? I’d say it would go like this: “There’s a plane on the runway, let’s go around”. Reporting is pretty offensive to imply that professional aviators would have landed on top of another aircraft that would easily have been visible!

    • Marty
      Author

      All she had to do was talk to an airline pilot. Her understanding of our industry and the way in which we operate is woeful.

  2. Julian

    Geoffrey Thomas is one of the most horrendous contributor to Oz aviation. No background in aviation and no understanding of the industry. Why the free-to-air broadcasters give this guy airtime is a mystery. He is a moron.

    • Marty
      Author

      GT isn’t the author of the offending article, of course, but I know what you mean. I’ve never come across anybody that recognises him as anything other than a hack.

  3. Dan Wilkins

    The Virgin flight then performed a loop before landing without incident behind a Qantas aircraft.

    No flight report was lodged by the pilot at the Gold Coast.

    Performed a loop before landing? What kind of “aviation journo” says that?

    No flight report lodged? Is Ironside serious? What kind of report does she think is necessary?

    Good job, Marty and Ken. Well done.

    • Marty
      Author

      I can only assume the report she’s talking about is a report to the ATSB (which wasn’t required), or perhaps a company flight crew report. Either way, that information wouldn’t be provided to her (even if the incident required its submission). Making that remark adds to the drama but it doesn’t actually mean anything.

      The article was disgraceful in every respect.

  4. Nigel Tanner

    Hi Marty and Ken. Just wanted to let you know what a great article you’ve written. It makes me feel very comfortable knowing that level-headed (lateral thinking, logical and calculated) guys like you are steering the ship. Seriously, really well presented. I note Ironside is yet to retract her false video from record.
    It took me a few minutes to work out your Southpark comic: “Aviation is like religion; many attend, few understand” :)

  5. FK

    Nice to see this kind of journalism being challenged.
    But I’m not sure if this:
    “The description conjures up images of a small piston engine aircraft in the minds of most people while a multi-million dollar business jet elicits a different reaction. While not overly important, …”
    is entirely correct.
    I have no idea how things are in Australia, but I think here in Europe too many people would read an article like this and think
    “We need to stop these hobby pilots before they start killing people”.

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