6 Mar 2012

Controllers stunned pilot took off despite conditions

10:43 pm on 6 March 2012

Air traffic controllers watched in disbelief as a Pacific Blue pilot took off from Queenstown in darkness, high crosswinds and low cloud cover, a court has been told.

The pilot, who has name suppression, has been charged with carelessly operating a Boeing 737 when he took off after the minimum safe daylight hours. The flight had 70 passengers and crew on board and was bound for Sydney.

At the time of the incident on 22 June 2010, there were no runway lights at the airport or radar and pilots had to be clear of the airport 30 minutes before twilight. The Pacific Blue pilot operated on instrument flight rules. Runway lights have since been installed at the airport.

Audio recordings played to the Queenstown District Court on Tuesday revealed that the pilot was concerned about crosswinds, cloud height and the level of light before he lined up the plane on the runway. However, he said he felt he could get it off the ground.

Air traffic controllers can be heard swearing and are astonished that the pilot decided to take off despite the conditions.

The controllers said the pilot must have "large gonads and balls" for attempting to leave the airport.

They use the f-word three times and rushed to the windows to make sure the jet reappeared from behind the mountains as it climbed out of Queenstown.

Conversations were also heard between controllers and an Air New Zealand pilot who said he would be returning to Christchurch as he could not land in Queenstown due to the conditions.

The defence denies that the circumstances encountered on the day constituted a breach of safety.