Take-off left no option for safe outcome’ if engine failed

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A plane would have probably crashed if an engine failed during a flight where the pilot allegedly flouted take-off rules, Queenstown District Court has heard.

Senior flight expert Colin Glasgow has today (Monday) explained that there would be “no option for a safe outcome” in the event of engine failure during a Sydney-bound Pacific Blue flight’s take-off from Queenstown Airport at 5.25pm on June 22, 2010.

The pilot of the aircraft, a 54-year-old Auckland man, is charged with operating an aircraft in a careless manner. He has been granted interim name suppression.

Glasgow is a retired Civil Aviation Authority airline inspector and a former flight operations manager for Air New Zealand. He has 22,500 hours’ flight experience.

He told the court that every pilot must complete a pre-flight plan which states what will happen if an engine fails. For the defendant’s chosen departure route, his required emergency return plan was to complete a figure-8 circuit and land at Queenstown.

“In taking off at the time and in the weather that [the pilot] did, he effectively took away the procedure that would have saved them if a malfunction occurred in this critical stage of flight,” Glasgow says. 

Civil Aviation Authority alleges the pilot shouldn’t have taken off after 5.14pm that day because the airline’s rules stipulate Queenstown departures must be at least 30 minutes before dusk, or evening civil twilight.

At the time of departure – amid strong southerly conditions – cross-winds were at 17 knots. The legal requirement is 16 knots on a wet day at Queenstown Airport.

Flying into low cloud, the pilot “erroneously fell short” of the visual requirements which state pilots must be able to clearly see terrain till reaching an airspace area between Deer Park Heights and above The Remarkables road, Glasgow says.

Glasgow detailed a series of “unusual” aspects of the pilot’s departure in dark, wintry conditions that day.

Shortly after taking off, the pilot powered off to avoid low cloud, with the aircraft descending 300 feet (90 metres) to 700 feet (215m) above Kelvin Peninsula and triggering an automated “don’t sink” alert.

The plane then increased speed, which led to the pilot’s first officer Christian Rush to call out “speed, speed” to alert his captain that he was close to the 200 knot limit for the aircraft wing flaps.

“This is not a normal manoeuvre for an airline pilot to practice in any context and the power reduction required to keep the aircraft speed within limits would have surprised the defendant,” Glasgow says.

The pilot then tried to engage autopilot but because of the aircraft’s rapid speed changes, autopilot wouldn’t engage.

“This would have been a distraction to the defendant and it would have added significantly to his workload as he hand-flew the aircraft through a descending turn out over the lake in these conditions of poor light and visibility,” Glasgow says.

While turning the aircraft around Deer Park Heights, the plane banked at beyond 35 degrees, triggering a “bank angle” warning.

“This is not normal. The actual bank angle required to navigate [this area] is typically 15 degrees.”

The aircraft’s stalling speed increases as the bank angle increases.

“None of this is part of a normal take-off procedure,” Glasgow says.

“Pilots will fly an entire career and not hear these warnings other than in a simulator while undergoing training.”

Glasgow told the court that the pilot cut a corner near Slope Hill, meaning it impacted on the ability to reach a required altitude further on in his departure flight path.

The pilot also exceeded the turning speed limit “at a number of points” during departure.

Furthermore, he didn’t reach the required altitude in the airspace between Deer Park Heights and above The Remarkables road and that he only just reached the required altitude for terrain clearance above the Southern Alps – on two engines.

“Given that aviation is predicated on the worst thing happening at the worst time, this aspect of the departure was certainly the worst time. If the aircraft suffered a malfunction at this point, again the defendant had no safe alternatives,” Glasgow says.

“If the defendant had to return [to Queenstown] he would be trying to land a Boeing 737-800 aircraft in a single engine state, which is far more difficult and in poor or no daylight, on Queenstown’s narrow and short runway, with no approach lights or navigation hazard lights.”

The defence case – which is yet to be heard – argues that when the pilot analysed the manual, he thought he was obliged to follow the rules that specified a requirement for a diversion to Christchurch in the event of engine failure.

The defended hearing before Judge Kevin Phillips continues this week.