Judge airs concerns about pilots’ ‘peer pressure’

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The judge who sentenced a Pacific Blue pilot for his careless Queenstown take-off has concerns about industry pressure to keep aircraft “off the ground”.

Auckland-based captain Roderick Gunn was yesterday fined $5100 for carelessly operating a Sydney-bound aircraft on June 22, 2010 in dark conditions and outside the airline’s and Civil Aviation Authority flight rules.

The 55-year-old married father-of-two is still allowed to fly but must undertake extensive training before he renews his licence, which expired during his two-and-a-half-year stand-down period following the incident.

Gunn must not operate as pilot-in-command on flights in and out of Queenstown – regarded as a “category X” aerodrome with the highest degree of difficulty – for 12 months.

During sentencing in Queenstown District Court, Judge Kevin Phillips said he held concerns about pilots feeling the urgency to keep aircraft moving.

“In my view there appears to be some degree of either peer pressure or operator pressure to personnel, and I find that alarming that a person as experienced as you has come to need to get this aircraft off the ground, out of Queenstown, in these circumstances,” he said.

“If there is the prevalent view among senior pilots that ‘the job has got to be done’ then that has to be, in my view, denounced.”

Gunn’s good character from his exemplary 30-year commercial flying career “is now gone forever” after a wilful disregard for the strict aviation rules, Judge Phillips said.

Gunn took off from Queenstown with 64 passengers and six crew at 5.25pm, 11 minutes after the rules stipulated it was safe to do so at that time of year. That, compounded by low cloud and high cross-winds, meant that a prudent and reasonable pilot would have left the plane grounded.

During Gunn’s lengthy trial last year, the prosecution case centred on the idea that if there was an engine failure during or immediately after take-off, the plane wouldn’t have been able to make it safely out of the mountainous basin and on to another airport. 

A transcript of an interview with Gunn following the incident showed he regarded flying on that day as “just another day in the office”.

Judge Phillips found that to be an aggravating comment.

“It was denouncing of your duties and denouncing of yourself.

“You seemed to ignore the fact that you had to maintain visibility – not only with the lake and the ground below – but also the mountainous terrain that you had to fly around.

“Somehow, you as pilot-in-command could make your own rules.”

Outside court yesterday, Gunn declined to comment because he is contractually bound by Pacific Blue to not say anything.

His lawyer Matthew Muir said: “I think that Mr Gunn will be delighted that the judge has given him another chance in his career.”

CAA director of civil aviation Graeme Harris has welcomed the sentencing.

“Airlines in New Zealand are among the safest in the world and the vast majority of airline pilots are highly professional and focused on the safety of their passengers.
“While we prefer to work with airlines and pilots that share a common interest in safety, there is a threshold beyond which those involved in aviation must be held accountable for their actions and that is what has happened in this case.”