A Soar Aviation student pilot who crashed his Bristell aircraft and suffered serious head injuries didn’t have permission to conduct the flight solo, an ATSB investigation has concluded.
However, the report revealed the trainee believed he did have authorisation, despite clearly not following the correct procedures.
Nonetheless, the investigation will likely raise concerns around the culture at Soar Aviation, which collapsed into administration earlier this year while facing a class action by 200 students accusing them of poor teaching standards.
More seriously, the ATSB is separately investigating an incident that saw a Soar Aviation instructor and student die when one of its Aquila AT01s crashed in the NSW central west last year.
In response, Soar said it subsequently changed its procedures to ensures keys to aircraft could only be accessed by an instructor, to stop future mix-ups taking place.
The incident itself saw the Bristell stall and spin before crashing into the ground on 12 December 2019.
The student pilot had departed Melbourne’s Moorabbin Airport to conduct a series of circuits in the Bristell in what was his first solo flight in the aircraft type.
Just after crossing the runway threshold for the first touch-and-go landing, witnesses observed the aircraft suddenly pitch up. The left wing then dropped, bank angle increased to the point where the aircraft became inverted, and the aircraft entered the first half rotation of a spin entry.
The aircraft’s nose then dropped before it hit the ground adjacent to a taxiway in a steep inverted attitude.
At the time, Nine News reported 24 firefighters helped free the man from inside the aircraft.
The ATSB’s investigation found that the pilot commenced a go‑around at low level when the aircraft deviated from the runway centreline in a crosswind (the crosswind component was subsequently calculated to be about 13 knots, within aircraft performance limitations).
During the go‑around, the aircraft aerodynamically stalled and commenced a spin.
“The ATSB identified that the student pilot did not have the necessary qualifications and skills to safely operate the Bristell aircraft solo,” said ATSB’s director of transport safety, Stuart Macleod.
“The student had undertaken only one supervised training flight in the Bristell, and that flight, which was curtailed due to deteriorating weather conditions, did not include any go-arounds, crosswind landings or stall training.
“Consequently, the student pilot’s familiarity with the Bristell was very limited.”
All the student’s previous flying had been undertaken in the Aeropakt A-32 Vixxen, a lower-performance aircraft with a different configuration and handling characteristics compared to the Bristell.
“The Bristell exhibits different handling characteristics to the other aircraft type the student pilot had previously operated,” said Macleod.
“Specifically, instructors reported that the Bristell is less docile and has a stronger tendency to pitch up when engine power is applied for a go-around.
“Instructors also reported that the Bristell has less elevator authority to counter the nose-up effect and a greater tendency to drop a wing during a stall.”
Even though the student pilot believed they were instructed, and authorised, to conduct a solo flight in the Bristell, the ATSB found that the student pilot did not follow the operator’s solo flight dispatch procedures, including not endorsing the aircraft’s maintenance release, and not undertaking the required solo flight briefing and sign out procedure with a flight instructor.
The instructor reported that they didn’t specifically tell the student pilot they were ‘not cleared for solo’ flight but it should have been clear from the debrief.
The student also admitted he was aware he hadn’t yet received crosswind or stall training, and was feeling apprehensive about getting used to a new aircraft.
“Familiarity with an aircraft’s specific systems, controls, handling and limitations is essential for safe flight,” said Macleod.
“That is why safety-critical procedures and regulations are in place to ensure that pilots have the required level of skill and experience to safely operate an aircraft.
“The outcome of this accident, which could just as easily have been fatal, illustrates the potential consequences of deviating from safety-critical procedures and regulations.”
The news comes after Australian Aviation reported in January how callers trying to contact Soar days after it collapsed into administration were presented with a voice message bluntly informing them that the business wouldn’t be taking or responding to any messages.
Callers, many of whom were likely to be current students trying to get through to Soar, were given no advice on how to seek help, and were simply told, “Unfortunately, as of 29 December 2020, we are unable to take your call, take any messages or return any messages. We apologies for any inconvenience caused.”
On that date, the business entered administration with KPMG partners Brendan Richards and James Stewart appointed to help the business pay off its huge debt pile.
Founded in 2012, the company grew to have campuses at Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne, Bendigo Airport in regional Victoria and Sydney’s Bankstown Airport.
Its fleet of 50 aircraft comprised Bristell LSA, Technam P2006T, Foxbat A22LS, Vixxen A32 and Aquila A210 aircraft, according to the company’s website, as well as a CKAS 7D0F simulator.
However, things turned sour in 2019 when partners Box Hill demanded the business supply documentation about its fleet and trainers.
Soar’s registered training organisation status was then revoked after an audit by the regulatory body for vocational education sparked by complaints by former students, alleging they didn’t receive the training they were promised.
Gordon Legal then launched a class action on behalf of 200 students arguing its teaching standards were so poor it didn’t meet the basic CASA requirements to obtain a pilot’s licence.
While the business had its accreditation restored, it still faced sanctions.
More seriously, the ATSB is currently investigating an incident that saw a Soar Aviation instructor and student die when one of its Aquila AT01s crashed in the NSW central west last year.
Both Saket Kapoor, 38, and Shipra Sharma, 26, died when the incident occurred at a private airstrip. No conclusions have yet been reported by the ATSB.
Founder Neel Khokhani resigned in early 2019, though has insisted it was purely a result of personal health reasons unrelated to the company’s struggles.