Australian authorities tight-lipped on Qantas pilot death

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Authorities in Australia were tight-lipped Thursday about the circumstances surrounding the death of an experienced Qantas Airways Boeing 747 pilot, who crashed a small plane off the country’s coast this week.

Qantas pilot Paul Whyte was the only person aboard a rented Cessna 172 when it vanished from radar late Monday over the Pacific Ocean 11 kilometers (seven miles) northeast of Byron Bay, near Australia’s most easterly point, Northern Rivers Aero Club president Wally Soward said.

Whyte had hired the single-engine plane from the club and had taken off about 30 minutes before the crash, Soward said.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which investigates fatal air crashes and is currently leading the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in the Indian Ocean two years ago with 239 people aboard, said Thursday it was not investigating Whyte’s death. The bureau would not explain why.

“Based on information available, the ATSB has assessed that this isn’t a transport safety matter,” it said in a statement.

New South Wales Police said they were preparing a report for a state coroner who would make an official finding on the cause of Whyte’s death. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the crash, but would provide no further details.

Whyte’s body and the plane wreckage have not yet been recovered.

Geoff Dell, discipline leader of accident investigation at Central Queensland University, said the official language suggested investigators had evidence of suicide.

“ATSB has for a long time had a policy of not wasting taxpayers’ money on investigations of things that they already know,” Dell said.

“If there’s evidence of suicide, like he left a message or something, then it’s a police matter,” he added.

A spokeswoman for Qantas said the airline didn’t have any concerns about Whyte’s mental health.

Concerns about airlines’ screening of commercial pilots’ mental health were heightened after co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on March 24 last year, killing all 150 people on board. Pilot suicide is also a theory behind the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 after it flew far off course during a flight rom Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing on March 8, 2014.