Friday, March 27, 2015

Deadly dive warnings for Airbus A320 aircraft

Highly computerized aircraft are very dangerous if any of their sensors malfunction  -- which happens

Jetstar and Tigerair Australia were among the global airlines warned just three months ago that the type of Airbus aircraft that plunged into the French Alps on Tuesday, killing all 150 on board, could go into an uncontrolled dive if sensors malfunctioned.

As aviation experts struggle to explain the Germanwings A320 crash, The Australian can reveal that Jetstar and Tigerair were among scores of airlines across the world that responded to an “emergency airworthiness directive” late last year.

It warned about a possible loss of control of A320-family aircraft after problems with sensors caused a Lufthansa A321 to drop 4000ft over Spain.

The plane that crashed on Tuesday plunged more than 31,000ft in eight minutes without warning or issuing a mayday, baffling­ experts and leading to theor­ies ranging from a hijacking to a sudden decompression.

Flight 4U9525 was on its way from Barcelona to Dusseldorf with 144 passengers, including a Victorian mother and her son, Carol and Greig Friday, and disappeared from radar about 45 minutes into its flight.

No cause has been ruled out but Lufthansa vice-president Hieke Birlenbach said the crash was being treated as an accident and government officials downplayed suggestions of terrorism.

Pilots contacted by The Australian were dubious about the decompression theory, saying the response in that case would see the plane descend to 10,000ft, normally using the autopilot, and there would have been time to send a mayday.

But the crash has again focused attention on the European manufacturer’s sophisticated flight computer systems after it was revealed an incident caused a Lufthansa A321 to drop 4000ft over Spain on November 5 last year,

It prompted the December emergency directive warning of possible loss of control if certain sensors became blocked. Airbus has since told airlines it is redesigning the sensor involved, called an angle-of-attack probe, and those sensors will need to replaced.

The blockage of the probe prompted the Lufthansa plane’s computerised systems to perceive an aerodynamic stall and order the nose to pitch down. The plane rapidly descended from 31,000ft to 27,000ft before the flight crew was able to stop the descent and continue safely to Munich.

Accurate information from angle-of-attack probes, which sense the angle between the wing and the oncoming air, is critical to the functioning of the Airbus flight computers.

Jetstar in Australia operates 53 A320s and six A321s, with others in Asian joint-ventures. Virgin Australia Regional Airlines has two and Tigerair Australia has 13.

The emergency directive from the European Aviation Safety Agency said a worst-case scenario meant the pilots could not stop the pitch-down command even by pulling the sidestick fully backwards. “This condition, if not corrected, could result in loss of control of the aeroplane,’’ the directi­ve warned.

Jetstar issued a flight standing order on December 10 outlining Airbus procedures for dealing with the problem by turning off two of the aircraft’s air data reference units.

A320 pilots said yesterday that this was a relatively simple exercise involving two buttons that would put the aircraft into “alternate law’’ and disable the computerised flight protections.

They said having two sensors freeze at the same value simultan­eously was extremely rare and doubted an experienced crew would allow a plane to descend as far and as long as the Germanwings aircraft dropped before taking action. “You’re essentially lobotomising the flight control computers,’’ one pilot said. “You’re taking their ability to overrule pilot inputs away.’’

“If this occurred, yes, it would leave its cleared altitude and start descending, but you would assume any competent crew could intervene after a couple of thousand feet loss and turn off two ADRs and then it’s controllable again.’’

This is the second crash of an A320 in three months after Air­Asia flight QZ 8501 plummeted into the ocean off Indonesia during severe storms in late December. There is no evidence the two are related but the refusal by Indon­esian authorities to release a preliminary report could raise public concerns about the A320.

A pilot who has flown Boeing and Airbus aircraft said there were no worries in the A320 pilot community about the aircraft’s safety.

The A320 family and Boeing’s competing Boeing 737 single-aisle aircraft are the workhorses of the aviation industry, with a good safety record.

Safety website puts the A320 family accident rate at 0.67 crashes per million flights up to the end of 2013 and Boeing’s at 0.62 per million flights.

But the pilot believed Boeings were more user-friendly compared with the “overly complex’’ Airbus planes.

“Once things start to go wrong in the A320, it can get very, very complicated,’’ he said, pointing to the confusion in an Air France Airbus A330 with similar systems, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. In that case, pilots made mistakes when Pitot tubes iced up and delivered inconsistent airspeed readings.

A Qantas A330 was also taken on a roller-coaster ride over Western Australia in 2008 because of problems with the computerised flight system.

Airbus delivered the aircraft to Lufthansa in 1991 and it had accum­ulated roughly 58,300 flight hours in 46,700 flights.

Airline officials said the plane had undergone all needed maintenance checks, including repairs to a nose-wheel door they said was not “safety related’’. The last check was on Monday and it had a major maintenance check in 2013. They said there was no issue with the plane’s age because it had been maintained properly.


National register for foreign buyers not 'racist'

Racial tensions in the real estate market flared on Thursday morning as the operator of Chinese language real estate website Juwai, Simon Henry, told Fairfax Media that the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) crackdown on illegal property buying is "racist".

Introducing the database of residential property transactions with the aim of improving the detection of illegal purchases is not a racist act, it's a necessity.

This register will not fuel racism. It will do the opposite by clearing up the confusion that is fuelling xenophobia in the market.

There are racial tensions in the real estate market. However, promises that we may finally get the elusive facts about foreign purchasing should be a source of jubilation, not derision.

Mr Henry has since clarified his statement, saying discussions should surround foreign investment, not solely Chinese investment. However, the point remains that the way to dispell racist overtones is through transparency.

FIRB chairman Brian Wilson has admitted that its ability to uncover and prosecute illegal activity is "sorely limited", leading to the activity being "inevitable".

Queensland is the only state that asks buyers if they are foreign and a low conviction rate for illegal transactions is widely discussed.

As a result, we are suffering from an acute case of confusion in the market as the blind lead the blind.

Ray White chairman Brian White's comments about anecdotal stories based on "sloppy" sources that wrongly confuse Australians of Asian descent with foreigners does have a ring of truth.

The foreign investment activity is largely concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne. With the markets as hot as they are, it's undoubtedly the case that some will look to blame anyone else with the capacity to outbid them at auction.

Herein lies the strength of a national database. Without real data, it's hard to challenge these assumptions about how foreign investment affects the market.

Introducing this register is the strongest step we have towards understanding what is happening and ensuring misconceptions are stopped.


Shallow Shorten endorses a dangerous doctrine

Under the spotlight, Bill Shorten doesn’t shine. He shrinks. Listening to the Opposition Leader talk about what he stands for is about as painful as having your legs waxed after a long winter hiatus.

When ABC radio host Jon Faine asked him: “What does Bill Shorten actually believe in?” the Labor leader said he believed that “everybody is somebody”.

Shorten sounded as if he were about to do an impersonation of Dean Martin, except that the 1950s crooner sang that everybody loves somebody sometime. Turns out Shorten coined the phrase from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Gondoliers. Even the full quote — “when everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody” — offers no insight into what Shorten believes in.

Shorten was a union leader, then a Labor MP, then a shadow minister, then a government minister, now he is leader of the ALP. He has had plenty of time to distil a coherent set of values.

Sadly, Shorten’s interview with Faine echoed the same shallowness he expressed in an interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 program last year. The transcript reads as if there are bits missing as Shorten tries to convince us he can fix the budget with “inclusive growth”. It’s the kind of sweet expression of nothingness, along with “social justice” and “community values”, favoured by the intellectually lazy, dense or tricky.

Alas, watching the interview again reveals the only gaps are those in Shorten’s thinking, his convictions and his authenticity. It’s the best example of the worst interview you are likely to hear from a mainstream political leader.

As a union leader, Shorten had some fire in his belly. As Opposition Leader, he is like a high school student at his first debate. You get the feeling he would happily argue one side as the other.

If ever there were a time for a Labor leader to display a commitment to economic credibility, it’s after the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. There’s no point speaking about growth — inclusive or otherwise — unless you believe in indispensable rules that engender growth. Take the basic issue of sovereign risk.

Sure, this sounds like a dreary ivory-tower obsession of business schools. Except that it’s not. Minimising sovereign risk goes to the heart of our ability as an economy to attract business, grow the economy, create more jobs and thereby boost tax revenue so the government can afford to do what governments should do.

The first rule of business is to identify the best places to do business. Whether you’re running an illegal racket, say people-smuggling, or an entirely legal one, say investing in infrastructure, you choose the countries that are good for business. Although the federal government has done a fine job shutting down the evil trade in people-smuggling, the Victorian government, sadly, has done its best to tell legal business investors they are not welcome, with real ramifications for the entire nation.

Yet last week, when asked during a doorstop before question time whether he supported the building of the East-West link road in Victoria, a piece of infrastructure Shorten previously has supported, he said: “No.”

Incredibly, the federal Labor leader who told Sales last year that growth depends on better infrastructure has tethered himself to the Daniel Andrews model of government in Victoria.

Labor’s new Victorian Premier has refused to honour a $6.8 billion contract with a consortium of local and international infrastructure investors to build the East West Link road. Andrews says the state won’t pay full compensation, with reports the government will legislate to avoid contractual obligations around compensation.

This is mickey mouse government. Either Andrews is a novice who has no understanding of basic principles that underpin economic growth or he doesn’t care that he has told the world that Victoria is not a safe place to invest.

Previous Labor governments supported the need for a better link between Melbourne’s eastern and western suburbs. Government officials went to Spain and France to promote the state as a safe place to invest billions in infrastructure. European construction giants Bouygues and Acciona, along with locals Lend Lease and Capella Capital — signed a contract to build the road. Andrews said a year before the state election that “I am not in the business of irresponsibly ripping up contracts and sending a mes­sage to the world that Victoria is not open for business”.

Yet Andrews has sent precisely that message — loud and clear. And it has been received. Online journal InfraAsia reported last week that Andrews’s decision to rip up a legally enforceable contract has “well and truly spooked” potential investors in Australian infrastructure: “The upshot of Labor’s decision to suspend East West Link … is that investors can no longer be assured that a signed contract is worth the paper it is written on.” International business journal Infrastructure Investor featured an article: “Can Australia be taken at its word?”

It suggested Australia is at serious risk of losing the mantle as “the world’s most attractive infrastructure destination”. Foreign investors have quickly understood that under the Andrews doctrine, no one is safe when they sign a contract with a government that is about to face an election.

If the contract won’t be completed before the election, the contract can be torn up by a new government without compensation. Has Andrews considered the full consequences of his ill-conceived doctrine? It may mean that long-term contracts, including a collective agreement signed by a Labor government with public servants, can be duly torn up when a Liberal government takes the reins.

In practice, the Andrews doctrine gives the opposition a right of veto over government action — and that veto right brings effective government to a halt.

Last week, Shorten endorsed the doctrine. The two Labor leaders couldn’t be further removed from the commonsense approach of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to capital and workers.

Again, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen is more sensible than Andrews or Shorten, telling the National Press Club last year: “Even if we don’t like them, for reasons of sovereign risk Labor honours contracts in office signed by previous governments.”

The NSW election on Saturday will surely see Mike Baird, the impressive Liberal Premier, re-elected. With a real commitment to reform he is already a standout among state leaders. Here’s an idea that could distinguish Baird even further from the neophyte Victorian Premier. Baird could commit to amending the state Constitution to reflect section 51 (xxxi) of the federal Constitution, which effectively prevents the government from expropriating property except on just terms. In other words, you can’t rip up contracts without paying proper compensation.

It’s true the High Court of Australia has made a mash of the federal provision by interpreting it so widely that litigants are always heading to court seeking money for something or other. But that doesn’t mean a state should be allowed to tear up a contract without compensation. Smart drafting can ensure a sensible law.

Meanwhile, all Shorten can do is say a quiet prayer to his predecessor Kevin Rudd each night.  It was Rudd who introduced rules around the leadership that means Shorten is secure as leader. While he’s at it, he should pray for some sound principles.


Herbicide cancer claim cops a spray

The most common chemical used in Australia by farmers and gardeners to kill weeds “probably” causes cancer, according to the World Health Organisation.

The finding by the French-based International Agency for Research of Cancers that the ­active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup — glyphosate — is likely to be a carcinogen has shocked the agricultural sector.

The multi-weed killer remains approved for safe use in Australia, except around waterways, and throughout the world. The federal government’s Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority has not commented on this week’s WHO finding or decided whether it plans to review the safety of glyphosate, which makes up the bulk of Australia’s $1.5 billion annual herbicide sales.

Since its invention by chemical company Monsanto in 1974, glyphosate has become the most common herbicide sprayed by all farmers worldwide, usually ­applied after autumn rain and before crops like wheat, barley and canola are sown to kill weeds.

Monsanto yesterday reacted with “outrage”, accusing the WHO cancer agency of “agenda- driven bias”. It claimed the ruling was inconsistent with decades of safety reviews and more than 800 studies showing glyphosate is safe for human health.

South Australian grain grower Mark Jaensch has been using Roundup and other cheaper or generic brands of glyphosate on his 500ha of crops for the past 30 years.

He is about to order another 600 litres of the herbicide today as he waits for a good autumn break on his Callington farm to signal the start of new weed growth, spraying time and, finally, crop sowing.

Ironically, his glyphosate chemical use has increased since the 1990s when he started using new “direct drilling” methods, sowing crop seeds directly into old stubble beds — without the usual ploughing to control weeds — in a bid to preserve soil moisture and prevent erosion, topsoil loss and dust storms.

“I’m reliant on it; we can’t put our crops in without (glyphosate), it would be hard to replace it,” Mr Jaensch said.

“But to be honest, I’m not too worried about this new (WHO warning); unless something comes out more concrete than ‘probably causes cancer’, I think it’s just scaremongering — I mean it’s not even classed as a dangerous poison on the label and you can still buy it in a spray can from the supermarket.”

Mr Jaensch said the chief difference from the 30 years ago was that he was now a better and safer user of herbicides such as Roundup.

His big tractor with its air-conditioned cab has charcoal filters to prevent him breathing sprayed chemicals, laws are much stricter about under what weather and wind conditions herbicides can be used, and most farmers now must undertake a safe chemical course before being able to buy products.

IARC report co-author and glyphosate expert Kate Guyton said the new finding of “probable carcinogen” was based on existing evidence from multiple studies of the effects of glyphosate on male agricultural and forestry occupational workers.

She said the report stopped short of saying the chemical conclusively caused cancer, or how much exposure would trigger cancer, but did find that scientists know people exposed to glyphosate in their daily jobs experienced a higher incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma than those not exposed to the chemical.

Other studies have found that glyphosate leads to DNA and chromosomal damage in laboratory animals, which can lead to cancer.

“I don’t think home use is the issue; it’s [in] agricultural use this will have the biggest impact,” Dr Guyton said.  “For the moment, it’s just something for people to be conscious of.”

A recent study by the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety and the University of Sydney found the incidence of cancer is lower in farmers, than in the general population, despite having the highest level of exposure to pesticides.

Federal Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce said today he would seek advice from the government’s Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority on whether the safety of glyphosate use needed to be reviewed.

But Mr Joyce did not appear overly worried by the new World Health Organisation “probable carcinogen” warning.  “A literature review of existing research suggests there is limited evidence that potentially links glyphosate with cancer,” Mr Joyce said.

“We propose to seek advice from the APVMA whether, on balance, the position has changed [but] this [IARC finding] would appear to be a re-identification of a small number of old research papers.”


Builders Commend Stand Against Union Aggression Against Women

Master Builders Australia welcomes the condemnation of aggression against women on building sites by the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator Hon. Michaelia Cash.

“Master Builders is committed to promoting opportunities for women in building and construction and evidence of aggression and abuse of women on building sites by the CFMEU is unacceptable,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

“Why does the CFMEU believe that violence and bullying against women is unacceptable in the home but acceptable on building sites,” he said.

“Evidence heard by the Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption about the CFMEU’s aggression and abuse of female Fair Work Building and Construction Inspectors, and further allegations of similar behaviour recently on the Sydney Barangaroo site, show the union is denying women the right to go about their work on building sites free from aggressive and abusive behaviours,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

“CFMEU National Secretary Dave Noonan has previously attempted to play down these incidents but the recent alleged recurrence of such behaviour points to a cultural problem within the union that the union must commit to redress,” he said.

“Unions have rights but also responsibilities. No normal union would permit such behaviour to be directed against their female members,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

“The building and construction industry needs to attract more women. Therefore Master Builders commends Minister Cash for her stand on behalf of women in the building and construction industry today and into the future,” Wilhelm Harnisch said.

Press release

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