Feared for passengers’ flight witness

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A Queenstown boat operator and rescue volunteer who witnessed a Boeing take off into low cloud feared he’d be picking passengers out of the water. 

Alan Kirker, giving evidence in Queenstown District Court today (Thursday) during the fourth day of a Pacific
Blue pilot’s defended hearing, recalled watching it from his Larch Hill Place home: “My first thought was I was afraid a wing was going to clip a tree, that’s how low I thought it was.” 

The Sydney-bound plane left Queenstown Airport towards Frankton Arm before it disappeared behind Deer Park Heights. 

Kirker told the court: “It was flying level. I saw it flying at what appeared to be a constant height all the way through till it got to Kelvin Peninsula, then I saw it bank very heavily, probably at a 45-degree angle. 

Kirker added later: “Because I have a charter boat and we’re on a list of rescue vessels – the first thing that ran through my mind was ‘How fast can I leave here to get to the boat to get to the lake’. I’ve never seen a plane take off at that level before.” 

He’d decided not to take a charter boat out earlier that day because it was “too unsafe” due to an expected southerly front, Kirker says. 

The pilot, a 54-year-old Aucklander, is accused of operating the Boeing 737-800 aircraft in a careless manner.

The plane, scheduled for 4.30pm, took off at 5.25pm – 11 minutes after the airline manual stipulated it was safe to do so. 

The man has been granted interim name suppression. 

Also in court today, video footage recorded in the cabin before and during take-off by cameramen for reality TV show The Amazing Race Asia shows passengers boarding in torrential rain and high winds. The airport’s windsock can be seen indicating extremely gusty conditions and rain is shown lashing the cockpit windows.
 
The maximum thrust take-off is shown with the plane levelling off over the Frankton Arm and flying low above houses in Frankton and Kelvin Heights. It then banks to the left, but not as low as witnesses on the ground have described in court. It does not show the aircraft being flown erratically and the passengers seemed calm. 

Freelance cameraman Simon Christie, who filmed part of the footage on board, gave evidence via Skype from Adelaide. 

While waiting about 45 minutes on board to take off, Pacific Blue crew informed passengers about delays caused by the bad weather, he says. 

“None of the first [messages from the crew] were of any particular concern. We were told Queenstown Airport didn’t have (runway) lights, so there would be a cut-off point when we could fly out of Queenstown,” Christie says. 

“The worst one before taking off was of most concern, was the pilot or co-pilot saying something along the lines of ‘We are going to give it a go’.” 

Earlier today Skyline Gondola operator and eyewitness Malcolm Officer was grilled under cross-examination by defence lawyer Matthew Muir. 

Officer, a prosecution witness, says he saw low-lying cloud that covered Deer Park Heights and maintained his certainty despite being shown CCTV footage from Queenstown Airport that indicated the hill was in full view at the time of take-off. 

Officer says he saw the aircraft disappearing into cloud as it turned above Deer Park Heights. 

Muir suggested Officer’s observations could be wrong after he was presented with official data that conflicted with his accounts. 

Pilots must maintain visual clearance between leaving the airport and arriving at an altitude point between The Remarkables mountain range and Deer Park Heights. 

The prosecution case is expected to finish early next week, followed by the defence case.