Careless’ Boeing pilot’s Queenstown alarm bells

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The Pacific Blue pilot accused of operating his aircraft in a careless manner triggered a series of cockpit warnings as he flew low above Kelvin Heights, Queenstown District Court has heard.
 
The defended hearing for the 54-year-old Auckland-based pilot began today (Monday), almost two years after he took off from Queenstown Airport bound for Sydney in a fully-laden commercial Boeing 737-800 aircraft. 

The man has been granted interim name suppression. 

It’s alleged he flouted the necessary take-off rules set down by Civil Aviation Authority, Airways Corporation and Pacific Blue’s own requirements when he flew out on June 22, 2012 amid southerly, mid-winter conditions at 5.25pm. 

CAA alleges the pilot – captaining the crew – shouldn’t have taken off after 5.14pm because rules stipulate Queenstown departures must be at least 30 minutes before dusk, or evening civil twilight. 

CAA’s lawyer Fletcher Pilditch told Judge Kevin Phillips that the insufficient light was compounded by low cloud and high cross-winds –and that a prudent and responsible pilot would have left the plane grounded. 

But instead, the pilot took off, and within two minutes of leaving the runway he encountered difficulty. Instead of climbing, he levelled the plane to avoid low cloud that had been reported to him. 

As the aircraft flew over Kelvin Heights golf course the pilot further descended 90 metres till he was just 215m above the lake. This automatically triggered a “don’t-sink alert” in the cockpit, Pilditch says. 

The plane then gathered speed, which led to the captain’s first officer to call out “speed, speed” to get the defendant to slow down – so that the aircraft avoided reaching the speed threshold for its wing flaps. The pilot then slowed the aircraft down. 

The captain had planned to engage auto-pilot soon after take-off, but because of his position, auto-pilot wouldn’t engage. 

As he flew over Deer Park Heights, the aircraft banked sharply, triggering another automated warning. 

CAA also alleges that the pilot didn’t reach the required altitude of 4400 feet at a certain point on the flight path above The Remarkables. 

CAA claims that in the event of engine failure – which every pilot must plan for before a flight – the Pacific Blue plane was in no position to safely turn back to Queenstown – and that its alternate emergency landing option in either Christchurch or Dunedin was not viable. 

After the incident, the pilot was stood down from his role on full pay. It’s understood he hasn’t flown since. 

Defence lawyer Matthew Muir says his case will show there are many inconsistencies within the different requirements set down by CAA, Airways and Pacific Blue. 

Muir says his client did not breach the rules because he had planned a safe alternate landing at Christchurch Airport – where its runway has lights and is 15 metres wider than Queenstown Airport’s. 

Evidence will show that the pilot planned the flight using all available information to him as well as his own personal observations at the time, Muir adds.

Over the next few days the court will hear evidence from air traffic controllers, eye witnesses on the ground and passengers on the flight. 

The hearing has been set down for two weeks.