Australia’s defence department has said that the presence of a Chinese aircraft unloading its humanitarian aid shipment on the runway at Vanuatu’s Port Vila airport was the reason behind its own aid flight being forced to return to Australia before making a second, successful delivery later.
The response from the department follows a Reuters report about the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Boeing C-17A Globemaster III airlifter turning back for RAAF Base Amberley on Sunday 12th of April despite having clearance to land, citing airport officials at Port Vila.
“We gave clearance to land. They were circling.” Jason Rakau, chief executive of Airports Vanuatu, told Reuters on Tuesday, adding that, “The Chinese plane was at one end of the runway. There was still 2,000 metres of runway available”.
However, a department spokesperson said in an emailed response to APDR that the C-17 had returned because the decision was made that it could not land safely. The response said:
“A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-17A aircraft carrying humanitarian aid to support the disaster relief efforts of the Government of Vanuatu successfully delivered 13 pallets of humanitarian assistance to Port Vila, Vanuatu, on Monday, 13 April 2020.”
“The aircraft had been unable to safely land on 12 April 2020. Another aircraft – an A320 charter flight from China – was running late in unloading its humanitarian cargo at Port Vila Airport preventing the RAAF C-17A from landing safely. The RAAF C-17A aircraft returned to Australia on 12 April 2020, upon the minimum safe fuel level being reached”, it continued.
The aircraft were delivering humanitarian aid to Vanuatu following Cyclone Harold, which caused extensive damage to property in the South Pacific island nation last week.
The spokesperson confirmed that airport authorities at Port Vila had cleared the C-17 to land, stating in its response that “The RAAF flight had been given full local approvals to proceed. We are discussing the reasons behind this regrettable incident with all parties to ensure it is not repeated.”
It must be noted however that Bauerfield International Airport at Port Vila is modest in nature, with a single 2,600m runway servicing a small aircraft parking ramp.
Although certified for aircraft up to the Airbus A330, the airport lacks a parallel taxiway, meaning that larger aircraft need to execute a 180-degree turn after landing, called backtracking in aviation parlance, to taxi to the terminal or to the other end of the runway to take off.
Also noteworthy is the fact that if the RAAF C-17 had 2000 metres of runway as stated by Port Vila airport’s Rakau, it would mean that the Chinese A320 was not parked right at the end of the runway but instead part down its length, meaning that 600 metres the runway was in effect blocked off and the C-17 did not have the full length of the runway to use in case of an unforeseen emergency.
That the C-17 circled suggests that the crew were waiting for the possibility that the A320 could finish unloading and vacate the runway, and it was only when its fuel situation necessitated its return to Australia that the RAAF aircraft turned back.
To download the latest issue of Defence Review Asia, click here