8 Mar 2013

Pilot found guilty of carelessly operating plane

9:08 pm on 8 March 2013

A judge says no prudent pilot would have attempted to take off from Queenstown in the circumstances faced by a Pacific Blue pilot three years ago.

The pilot took off in near-darkness with 70 passengers and crew on the Boeing 737 and has been

found guilty of carelessly operating an aircraft. No date has yet been set for sentencing.

The pilot has name suppression and denied the charge in the Queenstown District Court. It relates to Sydney-bound flight from mountainous resort town in the South Island on 22 June 2010.

In his ruling released on Friday, Judge Kevin Phillipssaid the pilot breached Pacific Blue's document detailing safety procedures.

The Exposition states that departures can only happen in daylight hours - with all take-offs to occur at least 30 minutes before evening civil twilight (ECT).

That is to allow for what it calls "visual reference manuoeuvering" - being able to see what is outside the plane - in this case mountains - in order to avoid them.

The Pacific Blue plane had arrived in Queenstown at 3.15pm, where weather conditions were poor with low cloud, rain and wind and not suitable for take-off. By 4.30pm when the flight was to leave, conditions hadn't improved and some flights had already been cancelled.

Judge Phillips said given factors such as poor light, cloud cover and cross-winds, no reasonable and prudent pilot would have attempted to take off that day.

The judge said the pilot ignored the mandatory requirements and, in their place, used his planned and self-designed contingency.

He said that plan did not follow the Exposition requirements in terms of what should be done if the engine failed shortly after take-off and that in using "guesstimates", the pilot disregarded the alternate plan that he had trained for which was to return to Queenstown airport if there was trouble.

Safety margins compromised

Judge Kevin Phillips said taking into account the nature of the Boeing 737, the surrouding terrain and the proximity of Lake Wakatipu, the safety margins at the time were seriously impacted on.

The prosecution said that after take-off, the pilot had to fly at about 1000 feet to avoid entering low cloud and then had to descend by 300 feet above Lake Wakatipu, triggering alerts - mainly "don't sink".

It said the pilot was forced to reduce speed in such a way that he then could not engage the auto pilot. The plane then banked sharply and excessively to turn around, setting off another alert to get the pilot to bring the Boeing back within the normal range.

The defence response to the alerts was that they were unremarkable. It argued that the role of the Exposition document is to do no more than detail directions, policies and procedures for the "use and guidance" of flight and cabin crew - and that it is not in prescriptive language because the terms "must comply" are not used.

Pilots' Association disappointed

The Airline Pilots' Association said on Friday the three-year judicial process has been very difficult for the pilot and his family and the guilty verdict is disappointing.

It would not comment further, saying that may prejudice any appeal.

Pacific Blue released a short statement, saying it has received the judgement regarding the pilot and is reviewing the document.

The Civil Aviation Authority welcomed the decision, saying it is a powerful reminder of the need for all those involved in civil aviaition to maintain the highest professional standards.