Pilot charged over Queenstown takeoff

JOHN EDENS IN QUEENSTOWN
Last updated 07:37 06/03/2012

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A Pacific Blue pilot charged with careless operation of a Sydney-bound passenger jet appeared in Queenstown District Court yesterday.

The 54-year-old Papakura pilot, who has name suppression, has denied operating a Boeing 737 in a careless manner on June 22, 2010, a charge laid by the Civil Aviation Authority.

A defended hearing started yesterday before Judge Kevin Phillips. Lawyer Matthew Muir told the court it was common ground the aircraft departed at 5.25pm, 20 minutes before official twilight.

He said the matter was before the court because that takeoff was, potentially, a breach of the airline's rules, but the aircraft met basic requirements relating to the departure rules for Queenstown Airport.

"There may be an employment issue between Pacific Blue and [the] captain if he failed to adhere to something in their manual but we have to be very careful about taking a breach and elevating it to the level of criminality."

The authority must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the pilot acted in a manner that was imprudent and unreasonable, he said.

Since the takeoff Pacific Blue twice changed the wording of its manual for takeoffs, bringing it into line with Air New Zealand.

For example, Air New Zealand rules said takeoffs and landings must happen at least 30 minutes before civil twilight but the Mount Cook Airline rule, at the time, was "not an emphatic cutoff" and allowed for some flexibility, saying aircraft must be able to return and land at Queenstown within five minutes of twilight.

Jetstar's manual was based on a requirement an aircraft must taxi on a runway at least 30 minutes before twilight.

The defence case said a breach of Pacific Blue procedures, if demonstrated, could not be equated with carelessness because the pilot's actions were correct.

Muir said the captain and crew in briefings, which established alternative runways at Dunedin and Christchurch airports, ruled out a return to Queenstown.

A safety plan was drawn up, with a flight path over the Kawarau Gorge to the east.

The pilot was faced with conflicting messages in Pacific Blue's manual, other operating procedures took precedent and it would have been unlawful to land at Queenstown, he said.

A fully lit 45-metre wide runway was available at Christchurch while Queenstown required a returning aircraft to complete a figure-of-eight manoeuvre surrounded by mountains and land on a 30-metre wide runway.

"We are significantly under anything that could be described as carelessness," he said.

The hearing, including witness testimony for the Civil Aviation Authority and cross-examination, continues today.

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A $7000 fine is the maximum penalty for operating an aircraft carelessly.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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