Chopper pilot put passengers’ lives in danger

A Queenstown chopper pilot who flew into a high tension wire while on a scenic flight with six passengers on board has been fined $3500.

Callum Fisher was flying an Airbus AS350 on the return leg of a scenic flight to the Remarkables mountain range in clear and calm conditions on July 25 last year.

During his approach to Queenstown Airport, he was told by air traffic control to delay his approach, and to continue to Lake Johnson so that a passenger jet could land.

Fisher entered a valley as he flew in a southerly direction away from Lake Johnson, and as he approached a ridgeline of Queenstown Hill, was given clearance to land.

The helicopter’s height above the ridge then reduced to 80 feet, breaching Civil Aviation rules that set a minimum height of 500 feet.

At this point, as the aircraft was flying at 40 knots, Fisher saw a horizontal wire ahead.

Despite him attempting an evasion manoeuvre, the wire struck one of the main rotor blades, tail rotors and stabiliser before snapping and coiling itself around the tail boom.

He managed to make a ‘‘soft, controlled emergency landing’’ nearby — no one on board was injured.

The chopper, operated by The Helicopter Line (THL), sustained about $500,000 of damage.

Fisher, who has over 4900 hours on helicopters since getting his commercial helicopter licence in 2006, was sentenced in Queenstown’s court this week on a Civil Aviation Act charge of operating an aircraft in a manner that caused unnecessary danger.

Judge Catriona Doyle read two victim impact statements to the court, the first by a husband and wife, who said although they weren’t physically injured in the incident, they suffered lasting emotional harm from the realisation they ‘‘could’ve died’’ in the incident.

They’d never fly in a chopper again, the couple said.

In the second statement, two sisters applauded Fisher’s ‘‘professionalism, quick thinking and expertise’’ after seeing the wire, which averted a more serious incident.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) counsel Anna McConachy said the incident posed a ‘‘serious risk to the safety of everyone on board’’.

‘‘It was more a matter of good luck rather than good management that this wasn’t a more serious incident.’’

Although the charge carried a maximum sentence of a fine of $10,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment, a fine of $5000-$6000 was considered
appropriate because of the ‘‘low-level, one-off’’ nature of the incident.

Fisher’s counsel, Sam Crosbie, said the defendant had accepted responsibility for breaching the minimum height rule.

He had not read an email notifying all pilots about the placement of the wire, Crosbie said, and submitted a fine between $1000 and $3000 was appropriate.

Doyle told Fisher his actions were a ‘‘clear breach of both the rules and the requirements of your employment’’.

The passengers had been relying entirely on both his expertise and his compliance with the rules.

‘‘By your conduct, you’ve placed their lives in danger, even though you did not intend to do so, and even though you then took extraordinary steps to keep them safe.’’

Applying discounts for Fisher’s early guilty plea and cooperation with CAA, Doyle imposed a fine of $3500, noting the sentencing options
available were ‘‘really limited’’ — the court hadn’t been asked to impose a more significant penalty, such as suspending Fisher’s pilot licence.

THL owner Mark Quickfall said it expected its pilots to comply with the company’s operating procedures as well as Civil Aviation rules.

Fisher no longer worked for the company.

[email protected]

- Advertisement -