Pilot found guilty of flying out of Queenstown in careless manner

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The Pacific Blue pilot accused of operating a passenger jet in a careless manner in Queenstown has been found guilty.

The decision of Judge Kevin Phillips, released today, has ruled that the Auckland-based pilot should not have taken off from Queenstown Airport in dark, wintry conditions in his Sydney-bound Boeing 737-800 on June 22, 2010.

The pilot has continued interim name suppression till his sentencing on March 26.

During the lengthy trial in March and September 2012, the Civil Aviation Authority alleged the pilot, then 54, took off 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 responsible pilot would have left the plane grounded.

The prosecution case centred on the idea that if there was an engine failure during or immediately after take-off, the plane – carrying 70 passengers – wouldn’t have been able to make it safely out of the mountainous basin and on to another airport.

In his 130-page judgment, Judge Phillips has found that the pilot did not apply the degree of care and attention a reasonable and prudent pilot would have exercised.

When taking off from Queenstown Airport that evening, the pilot breached Pacific Blue’s rules around operating safety procedures by departing within a 30-minute restricted window. He also flew out in low, thick cloud that obscured mountainous terrain that was required to be seen by the pilot during take-off.

“The defendant ran a high risk of having to enter cloud during the visual segment of his Queenstown departure because of the nature of the conditions pertaining at the time and that he took a risk of that occurring which, on my view of all the evidence, would not be a risk adopted by a reasonable, prudent pilot,” Judge Phillips says.

The pilot’s required contingency plan was not in accordance with Pacific Blue’s rules in respect of possible engine failure during a certain part of take-off and he “exposed his crew and passengers to an undue level of risk” by ignoring reports of high cross winds and even higher wind gusts from Queenstown Air Traffic Control.

After take-off the pilot levelled the aircraft off at about 1000ft above ground level (AGL), sped up, then dropped to 700ft AGL – triggering a “don’t sink” alert, a subsequent “bank” alert and the inability to engage the autopilot.

Each action “is of some concern”, considering the nature of the surrounding terrain, but when considering the overall event, “the safety margins at the time were, in my decision, seriously impacted on”, Phillips says.

“I am satisfied that the defendant as pilot-in-command of PBN89 on June 22, 2012, was careless in his manner of operating the aircraft.”

The pilot faces a maximum fine of $7000 when he appears for sentencing later this month. Judge Phillips also has the discretion to disqualify him from flying for 12 months.