Shocked Queenstown Airport workers voiced disbelief while watching a Pacific Blue plane take off in bad weather and before dark.
Queenstown District Court today (Tuesday) heard that the local airport’s chief executive, its operations manager, the rescue fire service and air traffic control all commented on the risky Sydney-bound flight asit left the runway.
The Pacific Blue pilot, a 54-year-old man from Papakura, Aukland, faces a charge of operating his aircraft in a careless manner as a result of the June 22, 2010 incident.
The man has been granted interim name suppression.
During the second day of the defended hearing, audio footage of conversations between air traffic controllers, rescue fire service (RFS) and Airways flight service specialist Darryl Palmer was played.
“How big are his gonads?” asks the RFS’s Nigel Henderson when he calls Palmer 30 seconds after take-off.
“F****n hell, I haven’t seen that before,” Palmer replies.
“Oh, he’s screwed…he’ll have to keep going,” Henderson says.
“F****n…he’s committed…he’ll be gone…he won’t be coming back,” Palmer says, meaning the pilot wouldn’t be able to return to Queenstown Airport in the event of engine failure because it would be too dark.
Henderson: “Anyway (laughs) he’s got some balls.”
In the lead-up to take-off, the pilot was receiving regular weather information, detailing that there were strong wind gusts, low cloud and a south-westerly front. At the time of departure, conditions had improved but occasional wind gusts were still strong.
An air traffic controller was heard saying that taking off would be at the pilot’s own discretion.
During this time, an Air New Zealand captain radioed the tower to say that his flight from Christchurch to Queenstown was turning back because the weather was so bad.
The court heard also evidence from Queenstown Aiport’s then-operations manager Daniel Debono. He recalled how he and former CEO Steve Sanderson both expressed their surprise that the plane had taken off.
“I have never seen anything like the Pacific Blue departure that night,” he says, adding that it was unusual because of the low light, gusty winds and cloud coverage at the time.
It’s alleged the pilot flouted the necessary take-off rules set down by Civil Aviation Authority, Airways Corporation and Pacific Blue’s own requirements when he flew out amid southerly, mid-winter conditions at 5.25pm. The plane was supposed to depart at 4.30pm.
CAA alleges the pilot shouldn’t have taken off after 5.14pm because rules stipulate Queenstown departures must be at least 30 minutes before twilight.
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 Christchurch was not viable.
The hearing, set down for two weeks, continues tomorrow.