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.

Paul Whyte, a first officer on the Australian airline’s international flights, 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.

Qantas said in a statement that it “won’t be commenting on speculation” about the cause of the tragedy while the coroner’s investigation is underway.

Qantas chief pilot Richard Tobiano noted that Whyte was off duty when the crash occurred.

“As you can imagine, this is a very upsetting time for his family, friends and colleagues, and we’re providing them with as much support as we can,” Tobiano said in a statement.

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 one year ago, on March 24, 2015, 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 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing on March 8, 2014.

Since the Germanwings disaster, Qantas joined with many international airlines in ensuring that at least two crew members remain in cockpits if a pilot leaves for any reason.