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60 Minutes

The Sixty Minutes Report



Friday, March 5, 2010

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Phil Goyen

An official report has confirmed 60 Minutes’ exclusive findings into the Norfolk Island jet crash. Update this Sunday, 7.30pm


Imagine what it would be like in those last awful seconds before a plane crash.

Well strap yourself in, you’re about to take that white-knuckle ride, sharing the final, terrifying moments of Pel-Air jet November Gulf Alpha.

Late last year, the jet plunged into the Pacific in the dead of night. But how could this plane literally run out of fuel? Well, we went searching for answers and what we discovered will horrify you.

Amazingly, all six people on board survived, on Sunday night you’ll hear their incredible stories for the first time.

But this isn’t just a remarkable tale of survival. The Pel-Air disaster raises serious questions about our air safety. For a start, how could this plane literally run out of fuel?

Well, we went searching for answers and what we discovered will horrify you.

Read the webchat transcript

Full transcript below:


MICHAEL USHER – STORY: It’s a confronting image – the wreck of Pel-Air November Golf Alpha wedged in the sand on the floor of the Pacific, its final resting place after a night or terror in the skies over Norfolk Island. Six people were on board that night when the twin-engined jet slammed into the ocean on a flight from Samoa to Norfolk.

GARY CURRALL: I wondered how would I die. I wondered would the plane disintegrate, would it explode. You’re questioning how it is you’re going to go.

MICHAEL USHER: For the first time, Gary Currall and his wife, Bernie, describe the horror of those final moments.

BERNIE CURRALL: You were fighting for your life, you were fighting for your breath. It was horrendous. It was traumatic. It was horrific.

MICHAEL USHER: And three months on, the Curralls want answers. You see, the plane simply ran out of fuel and had to ditch at sea.

BERNIE CURRALL: We nearly died. I thought I’d lost my husband and I thought I was never going to see my kids again. It was just so wrong on so many levels and, yeah, I’m bloody angry about it.

MICHAEL USHER: This is an incredible story of survival, there’s no doubt about it. How anyone escaped alive is nothing short of a miracle. But why did that jet crash off the rugged coastline here at Norfolk Island, way out there about 6km out to sea? Well, as you’ll see tonight, critical decisions were made before the accident which raise serious questions for the pilot, Dominic James, the airline, Pel-Air and Australia’s aviation regulators, questions they’re in no hurry to answer. Gary and Bernie Currall love adventure. Victoria’s home but they’ve travelled the world. 12 months ago, they got a dream opportunity to work in Samoa but in November last year Bernie fell ill after a botched hysterectomy. A CareFlight medical team was dispatched to get her back to Melbourne for specialist care.

BERNIE CURRALL: I was just relieved. I thought, “OK, I’ll go home and, you know, we’ll get fixed. They’ll fix it.”

MICHAEL USHER: So it was good news when you learnt that jet was on its way!

GARY CURRALL: It was. We were looking forward to getting some proper treatment for Bernie.

MICHAEL USHER: This is the type of plane that came to Bernie’s rescue – a twin-engine Westwind jet, operated by Pel-Air. They left Samoa at dusk, with a plan to refuel on Norfolk Island before continuing to Melbourne. On board, CareFlight doctor David Helm and nurse Karen Casey were caring for Bernie, who was strapped into a stretcher for the flight.

KAREN CASEY: I just recall looking at her, thinking, “Thank God she’s here, she’s going to be OK.”

MICHAEL USHER: The copilot was Zoe Culpit. And in command of everyone’s wellbeing was Dominic James, a pilot with 10 years experience. The dashing captain is also something of a celebrity – a former ‘Cleo’ Bachelor of the Year contestant. But it’s Dominic James’s actions that night that are now being scrutinised by two major investigations. The first sign of trouble came as the jet approached Norfolk Island for its refuelling stop. Larry Quintel was manning the airport control room.

LARRY QUINTEL: The weather was one of the worst I’ve think I’ve seen here for a long time. It was clagged into where it was unseeable. The pilots would have no vis of Norfolk Island at all.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: I will switch all runways on to high intensity and if you wish I could put the strobes on the ends of the runways as well. PILOT: Yeah, if you could put everything on, that’d be appreciated. Thank you.

MICHAEL USHER: This is the actual recording between the jet and Norfolk air traffic control. At this stage, Dominic James is calm but landing at Norfolk Island is looking extremely doubtful and he’s fast running out of fuel.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: The visibility has dropped down to about 4,000 as we speak, but I think it’s all because of this rainstorm we’ve got going through here now.

PILOT: Okey dokes. Well, keep me posted of any development, thanks, and I’ll speak to you shortly.

MICHAEL USHER: It’s soon clear to everyone on the ground the jet won’t be landing at Norfolk. Normally if a pilot can’t land because of bad weather he would divert to a stand-by destination known as an alternate. Incredibly, Dominic has no fallback.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Have you got an alternate for this? PILOT: Ah, negative. We don’t.

MICHAEL USHER: Dominic reaches Norfolk and circles the island, attempting to land three times but he can’t even see the runway. Then, the unthinkable.

PILOT: Ah, Norfolk, we’re going to have to ditch – we’ve got no fuel.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: November Golf Alpha, are you serious? Can you get enough fuel to make Noumea?

CO-PILOT: Negative.

MICHAEL USHER: The fate of all on board is sealed. At this stage, Dominic James has committed to Norfolk and there’s not enough fuel to get them to another airport.

LARRY QUINTEL: There was no indication or lead-up to that to say he did not have the fuel to go anywhere else. All of a sudden, when I found he had no alternate I knew there was a big problem coming. We were in trouble. HE was in trouble.

GARY CURRALL: After what I took to be the fourth approach, the doors to the cockpit opened and the copilot looked back at us with a look of horror on her face. She said we were going to ditch.

MICHAEL USHER: Could you believe what you were hearing, that the crew was telling you you were going to crash?

GARY CURRALL: No, not all. It was just total disbelief.

KAREN CASEY: I didn’t have a fear of dying but I thought, you know, I won’t be able to hug my boy. I won’t be able to watch my girls put their make-up on and things – silly little things – like that.

BERNIE CURRALL: They’re all going, “We’re going to ditch, going to ditch.” And then you’ve got these lights coming on in the plane as were going down. The lights come on – these yellow lights – and it goes, “Terrain, terrain, pull up, pull up.” And that was terrifying.

MICHAEL USHER: Back at Norfolk airport Larry Quintel hears a short radio crackle then nothing.

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Victor Hotel, November Golf Alpha, Norfolk Unicom, do you copy?

KAREN CASEY: I thought we’d actually hit concrete. Instantly water came in from behind me so I knew it was the ocean.

GARY CURRALL: A deluge of water simply hit me in the chest. That’s when you know “I’m going to die, I’m going to drown.” The pilot flashed past me and that gave me the goal then – I knew I had to follow the pilot. Where he was going I needed to go.

MICHAEL USHER: It was nearly 10:00 at night, it was pitch black, the water was freezing and there was a 2m swell. It was chaos.

BERNIE CURRALL: I was strapped into the stretcher and I was just lying there, immobilised. I couldn’t move… and all the water just, I was just, all the water was coming over my face and then I thought maybe I’m going to drown.

MICHAEL USHER: Amid it all, Nurse Karen Casey and Dr David Helm made Bernie their priority, unstrapping her from the stretcher and helping her from the sinking plane – the real heroes of this disaster.

KAREN CASEY: I looked at Bernie and Bernie looked at me and no words were needed. I just thought, you know, I’m not going to let you go, there is no way.

BERNIE CURRALL: I just knew that if I didn’t keep going I was going to die, and I wasn’t going to die – dying just wasn’t an option.

MICHAEL USHER: Once out of the plane, Karen stayed with Bernie keeping her afloat. Husband Gary was the last to emerge. Amazingly everyone had survived the impact but now they were at the mercy of the sea. And worse – no-one knew where to look for them because their pilot had not issued a mayday.

KAREN CASEY: You know, we were in the middle of a survival story. We weren’t at the beginning or the end – we were in the middle in the ocean.

MICHAEL USHER: And you’re doing this at night? In worse conditions?

DARREN BATES: Yep. Back at Norfolk, the rescue team, including Darren Bates and Aaron Graham, swung into action, desperately combing the ocean.

MICHAEL USHER: At that stage, did you know where to go?

DARREN BATES: No, we were told to head south-east which is out towards the island out there.

MICHAEL USHER: Other than that, nothing?

DARREN BATES: Nothing, no. Just go out there and look.

MICHAEL USHER: A needle in a haystack?

DARREN BATES: Very much so, yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: It came down to sheer luck. A local resident standing on a cliff spotted a flicker of light the opposite direction to where most thought the plane had gone down. A fishing radar then did the rest.

AARON GRAHAM: We could hear one lady’s voice there yelling, just yelling. I couldn’t make out what was going on but I could hear someone yelling and that’s when I hear the pilot yell out, “There’s six of us alive.”

KAREN CASEY: When we saw the green light coming from the right of the boat, it was the most amazing feeling that I think I’ll ever have. I knew I was going home to my kids.

BERNIE CURRALL: It was just wonderful. I mean, it was just “We ARE going to live.”

MICHAEL USHER: The jet sank within minutes – a million-dollar aircraft broken in three. Those who survived want to know how it happened. Out here you’re a long way from anywhere. That’s why, under civil aviation safety rules, all pilots who are headed to the island have to carry enough fuel to divert if they get into trouble. It’s simply reckless and dangerous not to have a Plan B in this part of the Pacific. So why on earth did pilot Dominic James take off without a full load of fuel? This is a copy of the fuel receipt signed and authorised by Captain James. He’s told investigators he didn’t fill the tanks to capacity or nominate an alternate because he believed he had clear weather to Norfolk Island. In the days after the crash, Pel-Air backed its pilot, saying in this case the normal safety rules didn’t apply – medevac flights were exempt. The question is why that exemption was ever approved by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

MICHAEL USHER: Would you have taken off in that plane from that island without a full tank of fuel?

MAURIE BASTON: No, I wouldn’t.

MICHAEL USHER: Maurie Baston was the chief pilot at Air Nauru in the Pacific and a former chief at the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

MICHAEL USHER: Would that seem extraordinary to you that this airline would have an exemption not to carry enough fuel flying in that part of the Pacific, and not have an alternate?

MAURIE BASTON: It would foolhardy, in my view. If I was the manager of the airline I would not allow that to go on. I would not accept that policy. There has to be a bottom line where safety is not compromised. The rules are clear. I cannot see any justification for varying those rules.

MICHAEL USHER: Immediately after the crash, company officials gathered here, at Pel-Air’s Sydney headquarters, for a crisis meeting. At that stage information from Norfolk island was limited but they were certain of one thing – this was a potential public relations nightmare. But long before Pel-Air knew the full facts of the crash, its executives got to work on their spin strategy and the star of that spin would be their pin-up boy pilot. They’d hail Dominic James a hero, and hopefully deflect questions about his actions or their own. They knew it was a story the media would swallow.

JOHN SHARP (15 NOVEMBER 2009): If the pilots weren’t as skilled and professional as they were on the day, this could have been a totally different outcome.

MICHAEL USHER: As the six crash survivors finally made it back to Australia, airline deputy chairman John Sharp happily peddled the hero-pilot story.

JOHN SHARP (ARCHIVAL): This is the equivalent to a gold medal for aviation. Yes, he was a ‘Cleo’ Bachelor of the Year.

RADIO HOST: It’s all part of the Pel-Air experience! JOHN SHARP: Yes, we only employ the very best people at Pel-Air.

MICHAEL USHER: But behind the scenes, it was no laughing matter. Pel-Air swiftly changed its fuel policy, ordering all crews to carry enough fuel for a Plan B landing. It was a sensitive time for Pel-Air, which was close to securing a $70 million contract for Air Ambulance Victoria. John Sharp declined to be interviewed for this story and again refused to answer questions outside the airline’s offices.

MICHAEL USHER: Six people almost died, why wasn’t there enough fuel on board that plane for it to land somewhere safely?

JOHN SHARP: Michael, I’ve already told you over the telephone. You didn’t need to come and ask me these questions in front of the camera. You’ve already discussed this over the telephone and I’ve given you the reasons why we’re not able to speak…

MICHAEL USHER: But are you hiding behind the investigation?

MICHAEL USHER: Pilot Dominic James also refused interview requests, claiming he’s been gagged by investigators and Pel-Air.

MICHAEL USHER: Have you had any contact from Pel-Air since the crash?

BERNIE CURRALL: None whatsoever.

GARY CURRALL: Not a call, no flowers, no ‘get well’ card, nothing.

MICHAEL USHER: That must make you furious?

BERNIE CURRALL: Absolutely furious.

GARY CURRALL: The impression we get is they don’t care.

MICHAEL USHER: Bernie and Gary haven’t travelled since the crash. They’re treasuring the moments with their grandchildren. Like all the survivors, they know how lucky they are to be here. Gary and Bernie, I’ve got someone here I’d like you to see.

BERNIE CURRALL: Oh my God! Oh, my God! Oh, bloody hell. Oh, hon. Oh, Karen, I can’t believe it.

MICHAEL USHER: Seeing each other for the first time since that night, it’s clear Bernie and the nurse who saved her life, Karen Casey, have a bond that will last a lifetime.

KAREN CASEY: I would never have let you go, you know. I remember the moment when we were told that we were going to ditch, and I looked up at Gary. Gary, you looked behind, because Bernie was lying on the stretcher and you looked up at him over your shoulder and held hands. And I just thought it was just a moment of pure, pure love and I thought, “There is no way these two can be separated,” and, you know, we’re going to get out of here and it’s going to be all good.

MICHAEL USHER: The investigation into the crash should be completed mid-year. In the meantime, Dominic James’s pilot’s licence has been suspended, pending the findings of the investigation.