Flight of fear

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White-knuckle air travellers shouldn’t read on. 

Queenstown District Court judge Kevin Phillips’ 50,000-word verdict earlier this month convicting a pilot for careless flying reads like a chilling thriller. 

This week, the pilot – Auckland-based Roderick Gunn – was fined $5100 and had his name suppression lifted. 

Gunn was also ordered to undergo extensive training and barred from flying in and out of Queenstown as the pilot in command for a year. 

On June 22, 2010, the 64 passengers and four cabin crew aboard the Boeing 737 may not have realised how near they came to disaster. 

Judge Phillips believes they came close. 

Convicting the Pacific Blue – now Virgin Australia – captain, Phillips said he “ran a high risk” which “a reasonable, prudent pilot” wouldn’t run. 

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in Phillips’ judgment is Gunn was a training captain for his airline at the time of the offence. 

During the 19-day trial, the Civil Aviation Authority sought to prove the pilot broke several rules: 
– Taking off after daylight deadline 
– Breaching cross-wind limits 
– Departing in unsafe cloud cover
– And breaching precautionary procedures for engine failure on takeoff. 

CAA witness Geoffrey Lowe, Pacific Blue’s former flight operations manager, explained company takeoff rules for Queenstown require a figure of eight manoeuvre for an emergency landing if an engine fails before sufficient height is gained. 

With Queenstown Airport having no landing lights, the takeoff deadline of 30 minutes prior to ‘evening civil twilight’ is crucial so pilots can see the runway for emergency landings. 

Taking off 11 minutes later than the rules allowed, the accused admitted ignoring the deadline, saying he planned to head for Christchurch rather than land in Queenstown if an engine failed. 

CAA executive Mark Hughes also gave evidence “it was close to dark” on takeoff, and recordings also indicate incredulity in Queenstown’s control tower. 

Controller comments included “F—ing hell, I haven’t seen this before” and “Oh he’s screwed” – plus “How big are his gonads?”. 

Judge Phillips relied on CCTV footage to conclude the light “at time of departure was not good and fading further”, with passenger video footage showing house and car lights on as the plane flew low down Frankton Arm. 

How low? Climbing to 1000 feet, the pilot then had to descend again to 700 feet to stay below cloud – by comparison, Skyline’s gondola is about 1500 feet above the lake. 

The sudden descent to low level triggered an electronic “Don’t Sink” warning. Take-off departure at just 700 feet was “non-standard”, CAA claimed, breaching airline protocols. 

Members of the public gave evidence of “low lying cloud”, “fog”, “whiteout” and “thick cloud from Cecil Peak to the Remarkables”, some saying they lost sight of the aircraft in the murk. 

A defence witness and fellow pilot admitted it was imprudent to take off without knowing the depth and height of cloud. 

Judge Phillips said he couldn’t “reconcile conflicting evidence” – the accused and his co-pilot swore they never entered cloud – so he was unable to determine a breach of flight rules over cloud cover.

There was no doubt about crosswind limits on takeoff, however, with Phillips ruling that the captain’s breach “exposed his crew and passengers to an undue level of risk”. 

The judge called “most surprising and alarming” a pilot defence witness claim that airport windsocks were more accurate than wind-measuring equipment. 

The accused pilot did “no more than guess” wind strength, Phillips ruled. 

Several aspects of evidence dwelt on the difficulties of flying into and out of Queenstown. 

One of only two ‘Category X’ airports in NZ, ZQN has a short, narrow runway and is also characterised by hazardous terrain and severe turbulence. Pacific Blue’s manual on ZQN procedures carried dire warnings of “damage or destruction of aircraft” and “personal injury or loss of life”. 

All airline pilots receive special Queenstown training, yet Judge Phillips appeared duty-bound to point out co-pilot Christian Rush was “inexperienced”. 

Rush had only “very basic knowledge of the Queenstown operation and had not been trained at all, other than in himself going through a computer training programme in his own home”, Phillips writes.