The lengthy trial of a pilot accused of operating a passenger jet in a careless manner has wound up in Queenstown today.
The Auckland-based pilot, who has interim name suppression, has been charged under Civil Aviation Authority law after taking off from Queenstown Airport in dark, wintry conditions in his Sydney-bound Pacific Blue Boeing 737-800 on June 22, 2010.
CAA alleges the pilot, 54, took off at 5.25pm, 11 minutes after the rules stipulated it was safe to do so at that time of year. That, compounded by low cloud and high-cross winds, meant that a prudent and responsible pilot would have left the plane grounded.
The prosecution case centres on the idea that if there were an engine failure during or immediately after take-off, the plane – carrying 70 passengers – wouldn’t have been able to make it safely out of the mountainous basin and on to another airport.
Closing submissions from both prosecution and defence have been heard in Queenstown District Court today.
Prosecution lawyer Fletcher Pilditch says the pilot failed to follow aviation rules in a number of material respects which amount to careless operation and therefore put his passengers, his crew and himself at risk.
• Not departing within the required time before dusk
• Departing with cross-wind runway gusts of 19 knots – exceeding the required limit of 16 knots
• Flying out in cloud that obscured terrain which was required to be seen by the pilot during take-off
• Failing to devise an appropriate contingency plan in the event of an emergency
• Failing to plan for the use of anti-ice agents. Anti-ice reduces engine performance – and if the pilot had needed to use it, he wouldn’t have reached the required altitude between Deer Park Heights and The Remarkables Road on one engine.
“There were standards, there was a prescription and there were procedures and the defendant departed from those standards from an objective assessment in a number of material respects,” Pilditch told the court.
“He operated the aircraft outside the parameters…[in his view] he was able to determine the rules as he saw fit.”
Pilditch says there was confusion between the pilot and his first officer, Christian Rush, over their contingency plan – that they were “not on the same page” with the exact route they’d take.
Their plan was to go to Christchurch if an engine failed. However the required procedure is to complete a figure-eight circuit and return to Queenstown Airport.
“Possibly the greatest risk of all with the departure was confusion,” Pilditch says.
“Because the procedures were not followed, the training wasn’t followed, and the defendant and the first officer were not on the same page. In my submission…the contingency developed by the defendant created that confusion and created that risk.”
Defence lawyer Matthew Muir disputes this confusion, saying they both agreed to exit the basin in their contingency.
Muir argues the pilot – one of the most experienced in the fleet – was not operating the aircraft carelessly because his decisions made that day, in totality, were within the aviation rules as he saw it. All matters, taken in context, meant that the pilot was operating conservatively and in a reasonable and prudent manner.
There are many inconsistencies within the different requirements set down by CAA, Airways Corporation and particularly within the “deeply flawed” Pacific Blue manual.
“There are multiple instances in this exposition where there are internal problems or major problems within it, some of which impact very directly on the charges put before the court.
“There are significant instances where there are internal contradictions which go to the very heart of the prosecution case. It is riddled with inconsistencies, some of which are very relevant to the charge before the court.”
Muir recalled the Transport Accident Investigation Commission report that followed the incident.
“The TAIC report confirms that the level of inconsistency we’ve seen here is by no means linked to the fact that these expositions can and are approved by CAA, despite these problems, is a very real issue that needs to be addressed.”
The case began in March, with a two-week hearing for the prosecution, followed by a further two-weeks in July, when the defence case was heard. Judge Kevin Phillips has adjourned the case and will deliver his verdict in October.
If found guilty, the pilot faces a maximum fine of $7000. Judge Phillips also has the discretion to disqualify him from flying for 12 months.
Up up and away
Seems like this case has transpired into revealing behavioral, pre-flight planning and communication issues between pilots rather than smacking the captains hand for taking off in the dark. Just goes to show that there is likely to be regular disputes or lack of box ticking before any number of flights that take off when they're supposed to.... in daylight!
06 Sep 2012 01:15AMKickevents
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