Profile – Senator David Fawcett

Many an aviation-aware parliamentarian has helped advance the industry’s interests over the years, but South Australian Senator David Fawcett’s wide-ranging aerospace background has given him a distinct edge that is now making a difference across several industry sectors. Better still, some have already resulted in constructive and demonstrable air safety enhancements.

Senator Fawcett

Fawcett’s attraction to aviation was kindled as the traditional youngster gazing into the future over an airport fence: “I’d always had an interest in flying that was triggered in the 1970s when my father worked in Thailand with the Colombo plan. We lived near a US air base at Takhli, so we spent our weekends out at the base and I think the first military aircraft I sat in was an F111.”

He was awarded an Army scholarship to Duntroon Military College, graduated in 1986, and entered 1FTS, the RAAF’s basic flying training school at Point Cook. “I was posted to the Army’s Aviation Corps which is where I’d wanted to be. I graduated from the Army School of Aviation at Oakey at the end of 1986 and went to fly Kiowa helicopters with the First Aviation Regiment which also operated the Pilatus Porters and Nomads at that time.”

After a couple of years flying throughout Australia and PNG, Fawcett was selected to attend the UK’s Central (rotary wing) Flying School at Shawbury RAF base, where he completed his rotary-wing flying instructor training. He then flew on a 12-month exchange to the British Army’s helicopter flying school at Middle Wallop in 1989.

Back from England, he spent another three years at Oakey ending up as a senior flying instructor while also developing a deep interest in aviation technologies, and how and why they work:

“The opportunity came up for the Empire Test Pilot School, so I put my hand up and in 1993 I went across to the school at Boscombe Down in the UK, training to be an experimental test pilot – only the third pilot that the Army had ever sent on a test pilot course.” At ETPS he had the opportunity to fly everything from microlights to BAC 111s and helicopters – Enstroms, through to the CH53E Super Stallion. “At Boscombe Down you do get to cover a fair range of aircraft and systems. It’s a bit like thinking you know something, but when you go there you realise how little you actually do know. At the end of the course it’s like looking at one of those old Encyclopedia sets. You at least know where the various areas of knowledge are and how you can dig a bit deeper, but you also appreciate that there are people out there with a great depth of knowledge in all sorts of areas, while as an individual you can only hope to absorb a certain amount.”

Armed with the new qualification, Fawcett was initially assigned to the RAAF’s Aircraft Research & Development Unit (ARDU) in 1994, as a helicopter test pilot for Army. “In those days once you got to ARDU, you ended up flying everything you could. So I flew PC-9 initially, the old C–47B (DC-3/Dakota), Blackhawk, King Airs, Squirrels; a whole range of aircraft, which is fantastic experience.”

That kind of experience also broadens exposure to – and interest in – new technologies. Senator Fawcett had already qualified on night vision goggles (NVG) back in the 1980s when the Army was still using the first-generation AN/PVS-5 systems that were actually designed for ground use but had been ‘adapted’ for use in aircraft. “We used to literally hold them onto the helmets with a bit of bungee cord in the very early days of NVG flying.”

“Then when I was at ARDU we did a lot of NVG development work. Probably the thing that shaped a lot of my test flying career was the Blackhawk accident in Townsville in June 1996 when the two Blackhawks collided on a night counter terrorist training exercise killing 18 soldiers and injuring another 12.

“In the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics the Army wanted to be sure that Australia had the very best equipment and the very best operating procedures. It wasn’t quite a blank cheque, but I was tasked to go and find the very best equipment and to benchmark our maintenance and flying techniques against the British and the Americans. I ended up doing a lot of developmental test work with the NASA Ames Research Centre, as well as DERA, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in the UK. There was a lot of collaborative work on night vision and pilotage displays that led to me giving papers at a number of conferences in the USA, in France and in England.”

Fawcett had a series of stints with ARDU in the nineties in various roles from full time as a basic test pilot, through to flight commander, and at one stage as flight test safety officer. He then spent about two years with the Defence Acquisition Organisation working on the development of specifications for the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program. “So I had two years there posted to DAO but actually still living in Adelaide and flying at ARDU.”

He then attended Navy Command and Staff College before returning to serve as ARDU‘s first (and only) Army Commanding Officer from 2001 to 2003. Fawcett reports that RAAF responded well to him occupying a post that hadbeen more traditionally considered an RAAF appointment:

“As I used to point out to people, it’s really just sort of taking things back to the way they used to be. I think back to my great-uncle Bob Fawcett, who flew with No 1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in 1918, when the Army had all the aircraft, before the Air Force even came into existence.”

[Editor’s note: After WW1 Lt Bob (R.N.) Fawcett joined a team that included Charles Kingsford Smith and Norman Brearley, who were establishing the first air mail service between Perth and Broome in Bristol Fighter biplanes civilianised into Bristol Tourers. He died in 1921 in a crash near Geraldton WA while flying to the aid of a downed fellow-pilot.]

Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett’s period as ARDU’s CO ended when he resigned from the Army to enter politics for the first time, as the Member for Wakefield, a marginal South Australian seat in the 41st Australian Parliament from 2004 to 2007:

“Then when Kevin 07 came along a 0.6% margin wasn’t enough to hold the seat so I ran my own consultancy working in the aerospace field for about three years, and also doing some reserve work, so I was back into the technical side of aviation and test flying between 2008 and 2010.”

Besides his military background he also worked under an AOC with a commercial pilot’s licence, flying a King Air, as well as doing some commercial helicopter flying.

He was elected as a senator in August 2010, taking up his Senate place in the July 2011 changeover.

Fawcett’s first engagement with aviation regulatory reform came during his time at ARDU. The industry had already been working hard for a number of years trying to convince the regulators of the day that they should accept the use of NVGs for emergency medical and SAR operations, he recalls: “There was reticence within the regulator, but industry pressure continued to build after accidents like the one near Marlborough in Queensland in July 2000 when a single-engined Bell 206L-3 EMS helicopter crashed and killed its well-known EMS pilot, Paul (‘Paddy’) O’Brien, the EMS crew member, the child patient and his mother. That accident resulted from fuel exhaustion due to poor weather delaying the flight, and the lack of a lighted landing area. That didn’t need to happen, and if they’d had NVGs they wouldn’t have been in the situation they were in.”

Through his work with the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Fawcett heard that the RTCA [Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics] NVG development process was underway for civil operations, and that a number of members were meeting as a side activity to one of flight test safety workshops he was already involved with in the USA. He asked the CASA desk officer if Australia was going to be represented at the RTCA hearings:

“’No priority and no budget’ was the reply, but they were happy for me to represent CASA given that I was going to be there anyway. The Australian regulator was therefore recorded as having had a representative in the process but despite sending reports back to CASA about what the FAA and CAA (UK) were doing, there was no interest in following up”. Fawcett continued to contribute to the development of the RTCA document DO-275 which informed the development of FAA and CAA regulations, but it wasn’t until he entered the Parliament that he was finally able to bring the longstanding advocacy of many in the Australian industry into focus before Minister Anderson and CASA CEO Bruce Byron.

 The crash of another EMS helicopter, a Bell 207 near Cape Hillsborough, Queensland, classified as a ‘CFIT’ (controlled flight into terrain/water) accident, brought the question of night vision equipment into the limelight again.

“I had seen the industry continuing to work hard on NVGs, and that the regulator was still blocking meaningful development. I was on the Coalition Transport Policy Committee when John Anderson was the Minister, so we were able to bring before him that this was a real aviation safety concern. He was still getting a negative response from the regulator, so he said ‘Look, bring in the industry, bring in the regulator, let them sit with us, they can have the debate, and we’ll decide what to do.’ The industry NVG working group argued the case, CASA put their case forward, and in the end both Bruce Byron as CEO of CASA and John Anderson as Minister just said ‘Look, this is ridiculous. Make this happen.’

Senator David Fawcett 01b

Former Lt Col (now Senator) Fawcett happened to be a leading expert on night vision systems (seen here during a test of the Sextant TOPOWL Helmet Mounted Display in an ARDU Blackhawk helicopter).

Fawcett is careful to point out that he is not a ‘regulator basher,’ understanding that industry is not always right and that CASA faces hurdles in terms of attracting staff, retention and capacity.

With that level of awareness, aviation can be expected to remain one of Senator Fawcett’s primary focuses regardless of electoral outcomes in September. He believes aviation is in need of substantial policy direction, and he is not short of ideas:

Developing workable policies

“The Coalition has a policy committee which looks at the whole Regional and Rural Affairs and Transport portfolio and in fact we had a meeting just before Parliament rose, looking specifically at aviation policy. That is something that I’m actively working on with other members who are actively interested in aviation. We need to cover everything from strategy – what do we do with the White Paper? – and the whole NASAG [National Airports Safeguarding Advisory Group] process through to the commercial side; what role does government have, not to just be a regulator, but to be an enabler of the aviation industry whether it be the production side, or their part in the global supply chain.

“Then there’s UAVs. How much do we try and foster a growth in the UAV in the payload sector? How much can we review things like accelerated depreciation to encourage a refresh of the fleet? In the area of regional airports how much do try and support regional communities through making sure that we have subsidies for operators so they can still get out and operate, as well as local governments, to be able to afford to maintain their airfields to a suitable standard? There’s a really broad range of issues that we need to get on top of as well as more obviously contentious ones such as how well is a regulator doing and can we do it better?

“Here in South Australia as one example, there’s a lot of uncertainty around where the rules are going to go in helicopter operations. Where can I fly over built-up areas? At the moment, most police and EMS operators have a mix of single and IFR twin-engined helicopters, but there’s some talk about the performance categories and requirements that are going to be put on flying over built-up areas. That could push everybody into multi-engined aircraft which are capable of performance levels that guarantee a safe arrival and flyaway in the case of one engine failing. So people are looking to bid for a new contract which is coming up here in South Australia, but they’re not sure what to bid because they have no certainty around the rules – this whole dragging out of our regulatory reform process is really affecting industry in a number of areas.”

One of the recommendations of the Pel-Air enquiry report was that the committee was:

A short inquiry be conducted by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport into the current status of aviation regulatory reform to assess the direction, progress and resources expended to date to ensure greater visibility of the processes.

A resolution of issues surrounding the regulatory review program is close to the industry’s heart, and also to Senator Fawcett’s.

“My sense is that there are a few areas of concern. One of these which came out of the Pel-Air report, is that the regulator has a bunch of people who are working hard and with good intent, but as an organisation there seems to be a lack of consistency in standardisation, and that has an impact on industry. Given the amount that they can pay their flying operations inspectors, there is a lack of ability to bring in and retain enough people with the kind of skill sets that we want for people to be writing the rules. Having looked at these challenges the regulator has, I believe that we actually need a far more proactive and inclusive role for industry.”

Senator Fawcett believes that industry is rightly concerned when the person who has been writing performance standards for a sector does not have relevant experience and may not be open to effective consultation. However he believes a solution to this problem is within reach:

“My contention is that competence for a role is a mixture of two things; one is your actual qualification, but the other is experience. You can employ someone, send them overseas and give them a type rating into an industry where they don’t have a lot of experience, but then you have to question how much value they are actually adding. And if you can only pay half to two-thirds of what the industry is paying, then your ability to attract the pilots who are really movers and shakers – who understand the industry, is going to be pretty limited.

“And that’s why I think that rather than trying to have the regulator trying to achieve that, we should actually look at a model where we define a role for industry; both those who are actively operating, but also the other third parties like auditors under the Flight Safety Foundation BARS process or the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA).

“These third parties can have a role to work with industry and with the regulator in both the drafting of regulations and rules, and also in the whole audit process. I think that would actually give industry a lot more confidence, and it would be a lot more sustainable from a cost effectiveness point of view for the Commonwealth, than the regulator being a master of all trades.”

Strategically sound models

Fawcett is acutely aware of the criticism that there is no “one voice” that speaks for the aviation industry. “I actually think a better way to oversee safety is to split the industry into its relative sectors. High-capacity RPT could be one segment, then regional airlines, EMS/air ambulance operators, airwork and agricultural operators, and then general aviation. Each of those sectors could then nominate the group they are happy to have representing their views and to work with CASA on their behalf. At the moment the regulator will say it consults with industry, but the feedback I’m getting from a lot of people in the industry is that it’s more like ‘sit down and let me tell you what we’re going to do’ as opposed to industry saying ‘well, this is best practice, this is how industry would like it to work,’ and the regulator then looking at it and saying: ‘yes, there’s no safety case to prevent that, therefore we will adopt by and large what you have actually put forward.’

“So that’s the formulation of the regulations and rules side of it. On the audit side there are a couple of models. One is the basic aviation risk standard (BARS) model, where you have an acknowledged standard and you have a third party who actually comes and does the audit and the regulator’s role is to make sure that the safety management system is in place, and that the audit is about how it is applied, and best practice, and is done by somebody who has competence in the relevant industry sector.

“There is also potentially a role for Company X to say ‘look, we’re quite happy to have Company Y to provide an audit team member to assess our operations and we’ll send one of our people to audit theirs as part of the team.’ That may or may not work for commercial reasons, but I think there are more ways to skin this cat than having the regulator being the rule writer, policeman, and the judge.

“My sense is that we can do a lot better, and one of the starting points for that is having a whole of government strategy for aviation as a starting point. A board recruited for CASA needs people who have experience in aviation, not necessarily from a regulatory perspective, but certainly from operating and airworthiness perspectives. As well as your governance issues we need to have a board that should be chosen on the basis of its ability to input and influence the government’s strategic direction for aviation. They then should be appointing the CEO of CASA, and holding him to account to work in accordance with the board’s and the government’s strategic directions for CASA. But it strikes me that there is no whole of government policy. The current Board doesn’t have much aviation experience if any, and the CEO of CASA ends up operating as an almost completely independent entity who can end up setting a completely new direction, for example in regulatory reform. I think there can be a lot more leadership at that strategic level, and I think it will help in determining the resource requirement to ensure safety, and how do we actually work not only to keep the industry safe, but also to empower the industry to grow.”

ProAviation closely followed the proceedings of the recent Senate committee enquiry into CASA’s and ATSB’s management of the Pel-Air ditching investigations. So did everybody we spoke to in the industry. They were unanimous in their applause for the professional way in which all participants – particularly Senators Heffernan (Chair), Fawcett, MacDonald and Xenophon – guided the process of the enquiry and the delivery of its report. Numerous industry identities frankly express the hope that Senator David Fawcett will continue to bring his aviation experience and awareness to bear on the creation and maintenance of a sound, credible relevant and supportive regulatory environment.

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About Paul Phelan

Paul Phelan flew for over 50 years in private, charter, corporate and regional aviation, worked in senior management roles with a major regional airline, and retains his license. In parallel he has been writing for Australian and international aviation journals for well over 20 years on all aspects of aviation including aircraft evaluation, flying, industry affairs, infrastructure, manufacture, regulatory affairs, safety, technologies and training. He has won three separate National Aviation Press Club awards for "best technical aviation story of the year."

1 thought on “Profile – Senator David Fawcett

  1. Maxine Reid

    Very encouraging. I would like to see a system where the regulator is not the judge and jury as well and where there is some accountability for the regulator. At the moment CASA is not answerable to anybody, and so just does as it pleases. Anyone who tries to question their actions is crucified.

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