Pilot’s departure actions recipe for an accident

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A pilot’s “deliberate decision” to allegedly flout take-off rules at Queenstown Airport could have led to “catastrophic consequences”, a top aviation official says.

Mark Hughes, general manager of airlines for the Civil Aviation Authority, told Queenstown District Court today (Thursday) that a Pacific Blue pilot’s actions during the June 22, 2010 departure were a “recipe for an accident”.

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

Hughes says because of the risks of the aircraft losing grip from the runway, the fact that the pilot was allegedly 600 feet below the minimum safe crossing altitude at a point between Deer Park Heights and The Remarkables mountains and that because low cloud eliminated a safe return option to Queenstown, the pilot compromised passengers’ safety.

“Once airborne, the aircraft was operated in an unsafe manner,” he says.

“If an engine failure had occurred, there were no safe options. This was the direct result of a pilot-in-command’s decisions to depart in breach of requirements.”

Hughes adds: “The fact that the take-off was achieved in no way reduces the elevated risk that existed as a result of the crew’s decision. Any significant wind change during the take-off role or aircraft malfunction could have resulted in a catastrophic runway excursion.”

Hughes couldn’t find any evidence of the pilot being affected by fatigue, or that the airline had put pressure on the crew to take off that night. The aircraft was transporting contestants from reality TV show The Amazing Race Asia.

“It is my assessment that the safety was compromised as a result of a deliberate decision by the defendant rather than by human error. The consequences of that decision could have been catastrophic.”

The pilot refused to be interviewed by CAA investigators after the incident.

CAA alleges the pilot – one of the most experienced on the fleet – flew out 11 minutes after rules stipulated it was safe to do so. That, compounded by low cloud and high cross-winds, meant that a prudent and responsible pilot would have left the plane grounded.

Defence argues that there are many inconsistencies within the different requirements set down by CAA, Airways corporation and Pacific Blue, and his decision-making was that of a reasonable and prudent pilot.

The defended hearing, which has been presided by Judge Kevin Phillips, was adjourned today after nine days. The defence case hasn’t been heard yet. It’s likely the hearing will resume in June.