ATSB Investigating After Suspected Virgin F100 Hypoxia Incident

The Australian Transport and Safety Bureau (ATSB) has launched an investigation into a suspected hypoxia incident in the skies above Western Australia in late December. The incident involved a Virgin Australia Regional Airlines Fokker 100 flying between Newman and Perth.

One of Virgin Australia Regional Airlines (VARA) Fokker 100 jets. Photo: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons

Four crew members affected experience suspected hypoxia

According to the ATSB summary, the Fokker 100 was flying at 34,000 feet and 28 nautical miles southwest of Mount Magnet when a flight attendant began to feel unwell and was treated with oxygen.

The pilots took the Fokker up to 35,000 feet, but soon after, two more flight attendants also began feeling unwell and suspected hypoxia. Hypoxia occurs when a person’s blood oxygen falls below a certain level. That person might experience shortness of breath, headache, and confusion, or restlessness.

After the climb, the first officer reported feeling lightheaded and some nausea. The crew deployed oxygen masks, descended to 10,000 feet, and maintained course for Perth. In addition to the five crew, seven passengers were on the flight. Oxygen masks were manually deployed in the cabin.

“Upon becoming aware of a reduction in cabin pressurization, appropriate steps were taken by the flight crew, in line with protocol, to descend to a lower altitude and the aircraft conducted a normal landing in Perth,” a Virgin Australia statement provided to Perth Now reads.

“There were only a small number of guests onboard, and no ill effects or concerns were reported by them.”


VARA’s busy FIFO flying into Newman

VARA’s Fokker 100 involved in the incident, VH-FNU, is 30 years old and one of 11 Fokker 100s VARA flies around Western Australia.

Formerly known as Skywest, VARA is owned by Virgin Australia Holdings. The airline offers scheduled passenger services within Western Australia and operates a substantial number of fly-in-fly-out charters to remote mining and other resources sites.

VARA shares the same livery as its bigger parent airline but operates different planes. Whereas Virgin Australia exclusively flies Boeing 737-800 aircraft, VARA flies the Fokkers and a handful of Airbus A320-200 aircraft.

The flight, VA1896, is the 18:25 departure from Newman down to Perth. The Fokker 100 usually takes one hour and 45 minutes to cover the 632 miles (1,020 kilometers) journey.

BHP owns two massive iron ore mines around Newman – Hamersley and Mount Whaleback. They produce over 30 million tonnes of iron ore annually. It’s a story repeated around Western Australia, and airlines like VARA do good business flying miners in and out – known as FIFO flying.

Newman Airport (pictured) sees 13 return VARA flights a week from Perth. Photo: Western Australia Government

VARA’s Fokker 100 VH-FNU is back in the air

Big mining operators like BHP tend to share the FIFO business around, with Qantas, Alliance Airlines, and Network Aviation also flying into Newman. VARA flies 13 times per week in both directions between Newman and Perth with the assistance of BHP. In the case of VARA’s Newman flights, seats not snapped up for BHP’s FIFO workers are available to the traveling public.

After landing safely in Perth, one flight attendant was treated by ambulance crews for lightheadedness and taken to hospital as a precaution.

VH-FNU was promptly removed from service. After a couple of flights around Perth over the following days and a thorough check by engineering crews, VH-FNU is now back in the air and operating a Perth – Kalgoorlie – Perth service on Friday.

“The investigation is continuing,” the ATSB briefing note on the incident says