Pilot witnesses’ icy fallout


Senior pilots disagree about the importance of preparing for ice build-up, a court hearing into the Queenstown take-off controversy has heard. 

Expert witnesses from both prosecution and defence are at odds over whether wing anti-ice systems were necessary during a Pacific Blue plane’s controversial June 2010 departure, yesterday’s defended hearing in Queenstown District Court heard. 

An Auckland-based Pacific Blue pilot, 54, is accused of operating the Sydney-bound Boeing 737-800 aircraft, carrying 70 passengers, in a careless manner. He has been granted interim name suppression. 

Expert prosecution witness captain Colin Glasgow, who has 27,500 hours’ flying experience, told the court he’d have applied the wing anti-icing system whereas three pilots for the defence – including the defendant – will argue there was no need. 

Applying the anti-ice systems before a flight isn’t mandatory, but given the wet, windy and snowy conditions that day, the pilot wouldn’t have been able to maintain required altitude if he suffered engine failure and ice had formed on the wing surfaces, Glasgow maintains. 

“If you’re climbing up on one engine to those altitudes through the sort of conditions that were in the Queenstown area [that day], I believe a pilot would be remiss in not making provision for the use of wing anti-ice at some stage during departure.” 

Ice build-up – while extremely rare – will significantly degrade an aircraft’s performance and applying anti-ice uses engine power. As every pilot must pre-plan what to do in case of losing an engine, anti-ice would inhibit this scenario. 

The defence will call its own senior flight experts, who’ll argue they wouldn’t have planned to use anti-ice because Boeing aircraft have a “very low susceptibility” to ice build-up on the wings, lawyer Matthew Muir says. 

Muir told the court that Glasgow’s portrayal is “extremely hypothetical”. 

Glasgow believes the position of the pilots appearing for the defence is unreasonable. 

“I’m surprised. The Boeing aircraft is no less susceptible than other planes flying in these conditions at those altitudes.” 

The hearing is expected to be adjourned tomorrow till May. 

The court case so far

Day one:
The case opens with Civil Aviation Authority lawyer Fletcher Pilditch telling the court insufficient light was compounded by low cloud and high cross-winds – and that a prudent and responsible pilot would have left the plane grounded. Defence lawyer Matthew Muir responds that there are many incon­­­sistencies within the different requirements set down by CAA, Airways Corporation and Pacific Blue and the decision-making was that of a reasonable and prudent pilot.

Day two:
A transcript of a conversation between air traffic control and rescue fire service (RFS) reveals shock at the pilot’s late take-off. RFS’s Nigel Henderson remarks: “He’s got some balls.” Former airport operations boss Daniel Debono says he’s never seen anything like it.

Day three: 
Queenstown witnesses Lynn Cain, Robert Clark and Max Perkins recall seeing the plane flying low under cloud and powering off immediately after take-off.

Day four:
Local boat operator and witness Alan Kirker says he thought the plane was so low over Kelvin Pen­insula it was going to clip a tree. Australian free­lance camera­man Simon Christie’s footage of the take-off in dark, wintry conditions is viewed.

Day five: 
The court hears that Pacific Blue changed its internal flight policy twice – in August 2010 and December 2011 – after the June 22, 2010 take-off drama.

Day six:
One of the country’s most experienced pilots and retired CAA inspector, captain Colin Glasgow, tells the court that be­cause of the many “unusual” aspects of the pilot’s departure, the plane would probably have crashed if an engine failed after take-off.

Day seven: 
Glasgow, under cross-examination, says he believes the pilot “made the wrong de­­­cision” to fly because of strong cross-wind gusts before and during take-off.

Panasonic CCTV camera expert Christopher Ward is cross-examined by defence lawyer Matthew Muir. Ward says the actual daylight would have been darker than what is portrayed on the footage of the airport’s CCTV camera.