Airline changes policy after takeoff drama

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Pacific Blue changed its internal flight policy twice after one of its pilots allegedly flew out of Queenstown beyond the airline’s safe daylight curfew.

Queenstown District Court heard today (Friday) that the airline subsequently clarified requirements for pilots relating to take-offs and landings at Queenstown Airport.

A Pacific Blue pilot, a 54-year-old Auckland man, has been charged with operating an aircraft in a careless manner after flying a Sydney-bound flight in dark, wintry conditions at 5.25pm on June 22, 2010.

It’s alleged he flew out 11 minutes after the airline manual stipulated it was safe to do so.

Geoffrey Lowe, the flight operations manager for Virgin Australia New Zealand (formerly Pacific Blue), was cross-examined by the pilot’s lawyer Matthew Muir today.

The court heard that the airline altered the wording of its manual twice after the incident – in August 2010 and December 2011 – on matters relating to departing from Queenstown before evening civil twilight time and what to do if an engine fails at certain points on the departure route.

Defence argues that when the pilot analysed the manual, he thought he was obliged to follow the rules that specified a requirement for a diversion to Christchurch in the event of engine failure.

However, another part of the manual stipulated he must return to Queenstown. In his flight plan, the pilot elected Christchurch as his alternate airport in the event of an emergency because Christchurch’s runway is 15 metres wider than Queenstown’s.

If the pilot had chosen Queenstown, it’s debatable whether he would have been able to take off at all because in the event of an emergency it would have been too dark to return to Queenstown.

The pilot – who was stood down after the incident – was one of the most experienced on the fleet and was a flight examiner, Lowe says.

The court also heard the pilot didn’t have the benefit of explanatory statements available to him relating to engine failure and what procedures to undertake if there was engine failure after take-off.

Lowe says that the airline’s manual – a combination of Civil Aviation Authority law, aircraft rules and other requirement manuals – was a living document and responds to any investigations.

“Whenever a pilot gets something wrong that to us is an indication that we need to look at what we’ve done and potentially make continuous improvement.

“We were disappointed that [the pilot] didn’t telegraph [his interpretation] to us earlier and we were only to learn of this confusion in the report itself.”

No other pilot flagged confusion with the manual at the time, nor has any pilot pointed out confusion after subsequent changes, Lowe adds.

The defended hearing before Judge Kevin Phillips continues next week.