Pilot’s Queenstown night flight fears

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A senior pilot is casting a black cloud over night flights, saying Queenstown Airport is dicey enough in daylight – let alone in darkness. 

The veteran jet captain – who can’t be named because his airline contract bans media comment – warned last week that a Queenstown aviation disaster is inevitable unless major changes are made. 

His chilling prediction coincided with Mountain Scene revelations of a Transport Accident Investigation Commission report citing “system drift” and rising risk levels at Queenstown’s increasingly busy airport. 

In an extensive interview this week, the airline captain – we’ll call him ‘Peter’ – says he’s very concerned about Queenstown Airport’s push for potentially lucrative night flights. 

“There are a lot of issues presenting during daylight operations, let alone at night. 

“Queenstown is by far the most hazardous airport in New Zealand,” Peter says.

“Some pilots have been spooked so much by the challenge of operating into ZQN they simply try and avoid it.” 

The TAIC report heavily criticises the Civil Aviation Authority and tower operator Airways Corporation, urging “a review of [Queenstown’s] entire air traffic management system and operational procedures”. 

Peter’s stunned at TAIC’s indictments of CAA and Airways – the report was an official inquiry on how Qantas and Pacific Blue jets came to be on a potential collision course in June 2010. 

“Terrain, weather and runway difficulties make piloting a passenger jet into and out of Queenstown tough enough,” he says. 

Peter adds that having extra layers of risk from what he claims are “air traffic control inadequacies and a slack regulatory regime” is absolutely intolerable. 

There’s “a disconnect between airlines, Airways and CAA”, Peter believes. 

“[TAIC’s report] is a sad indictment on CAA who’ve had their blinkers on when assessing the various airlines operating into ZQN and the general operating environment there.” 

As an example, the veteran pilot flays CAA for allowing airlines – if they chose – to restrict Queenstown-specific simulator and other training to captains only, leaving co-pilots unprepared for ZQN’s trickier landings and take-offs. 

“If the captain becomes incapacitated, the first officer takes over,” Peter points out, adding co-pilots also monitor captains to ensure correct flight procedures are followed. 

“How can a first officer do this if he or she isn’t trained for the particular operation?” 

Air NZ, Jetstar and Qantas were training first officers for Queenstown flights – Pacific Blue wasn’t until CAA made it mandatory last November during TAIC’s investigation. 

All jet pilots now undergo “a comprehensive briefing, a simulator exercise and a minimum of two familiarisation flights” before flying into Queenstown, TAIC says. 

“This was an incredible omission on the part of CAA and a reflection of CAA’s airline-friendly officials,” Peter alleges.
Queenstown Airport chief executive Scott Paterson told Mountain Scene last week he’s keen on night flights – as was his predecessor Steve Sanderson – and he sees TAIC’s report as “providing more clarity”. 

CAA has recently conducted a “risk review” of Queenstown operations and CAA spokesperson Emma Peel has said Airways, airlines and the airport are being consulted. 

Airways is working on improving Queenstown Air–port lighting, surveillance systems and radar cover – and will eventually have some of the most modern air traffic services equipment in the world, Airways navigation services chief Lew Jenkins told Mountain Scene last week. 

Meanwhile, Paterson, CAA chief executive Graeme Harris and Airways chief executive Ed Sims have collectively written to Mountain Scene to say last week’s coverage was “alarmist” – and reassure travellers Queenstown skies are safe.