Airport confusion reigned’ after Pacific Blue pilot’s take-off

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The defence lawyer for a pilot accused of operating a plane carelessly has questioned the recollection of Queenstown Airport’s former operations manager.

Daniel Debono – now airport manager at Wellington International Airport – was cross-examined in Queenstown District Court today (Wednesday) during the defended hearing of a Pacific Blue pilot.

The pilot, a 54-year-old man from Papakura, Auckland, is accused of being irresponsible when he departed for Sydney in bad weather and just before dark on June 22, 2010. The man has interim name suppression.

Under cross-examination by the pilot’s lawyer Matthew Muir, Debono admitted there was confusion amongst airport staff about what time the aircraft taxied on to the runway, what time it left the tarmac and when evening civil twilight time actually was.

The Civil Aviation Authority alleges the pilot flouted the necessary take-off rules when he departed at 5.25pm. CAA says the latest time to depart was 5.14pm because flights must be 30 minutes before evening civil twilight (ECT). The flight was supposed to leave at 4.30pm.

In his evidence, Debono stated there was a “substantial period of time” between when the plane requested pushed back for taxi clearance and when the pilot requested clearance for take-off. CCTV footage shows there was 14 minutes between the two events.

After determining that Debono saw the footage two or three days after the event, Muir asks: “So having witnessed the departure on the evening and then having seen the CCTV footage two to three days later, you would be well aware the aircraft didn’t sit on the runway threshold for a substantial period of time?”

Debono: “It was several months between then and giving my witness statement.”

Muir: “So is it fair to say your memory has dimmed somewhat?”

Debono: “That’s correct.”

Debono admitted that immediately after take-off, there was confusion amongst airport staff – including air traffic control, rescue fire service and other workers – over what time ECT actually was.

There were two recorded ECT times – a general one for the country and a specific one for Queenstown Airport.

Muir: “So confusion reigned overnight?”

Debono: “I decided to adjourn the matter till the next day so as not to get distracted by what other peoples’ viewpoints were on what ECT was.”

Muir: “Does it seem strange to you that…informed people at the airport have differing views on what ECT is?”

Debono says that this is not unheard of. 

“Airports are rife with speculation, people’s views; it’s not the first time I have come across red herrings.
“ECT restrictions do vary between airlines, what the aircraft does is their call.” 

The hearing, set down for two weeks, continues tomorrow.