Queenstown fright flight pilot named

Last updated 12:41 26/03/2013
Matthew Muir and Roderick Gunn
Lawyer Matthew Muir, left, and pilot Roderick Gunn in Queenstown District Court.

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The pilot charged with careless operation of a Pacific Blue passenger jet during a mid-winter takeoff can be named after sentencing in Queenstown District Court this morning.

Roderick Gunn, 55, appeared for sentence before Judge Kevin Phillips, who released his written decision earlier this month in which he found the pilot guilty of a Civil Aviation Authority charge of operating a Boeing 737 in a careless manner on June 22, 2010.

The plane departed in darkness and bad weather, potentially endangering 140 passengers and crew.

Planes must depart no later than 30 minutes before twilight from the airport, which is surrounded by mountainous terrain and has no radar or runway lights.

Judge Phillips did not disqualify Gunn but imposed conditions including undertaking ground-based training, a safety management course in the United States and not to act as pilot-in-command on any Queenstown flights for 12 months.

He was also fined $5100.

The Auckland-based pilot retained interim name suppression until today's sentencing.

During a lengthy, technical trial last year the proceedings in March, July and September heard expert testimony, witness accounts, pilots and aviation specialists.

Prosecutor Fletcher Pilditch in his closing submission said the court was obliged to disqualify the pilot to denounce and deter the offending.

The court was presented with a case where the pilot elected to exerise his own policies and his actions lay somewhere between arrogant and cavalier.

"What the court is presented with is offending conduct which is not just mistakes but a product of deliberate decision-making and a wilful departure from the rules."

Gunn's lawyer Matthew Muir said his client's entire career, a 30-year investment in aviation, was imperilled if the court elected to disqualify his pilot's licence.

Judge Phillips said the pilot was held in high regard and his career was exemplary but if there was a view among the aviation industry that the job must be done then that must be denounced.

"There appears to be some degree of either peer pressure or operator pressure to produce an outcome," he said.

Broadly, the authority's case alleged Gunn, who left Queenstown for Sydney at 5.25pm, should not have taken off after 5.14pm because rules stipulated departing aircraft needed at least 30 minutes before civil twilight cut-off at 5.45pm.

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He was not entitled to plan for an emergency route to Christchurch if an engine failed and was required to plan for a return to land at Queenstown using a figure-of-eight manoeuvre.

The defence case argued the pilot's actions were correct, Pacific Blue policies and manuals were inconsistent and any breach of requirements, if demonstrated, was below the level of carelessness.

Judge Phillips' 316-paragraph decision said taking into account all of the circumstances, including the nature of the aircraft, terrain and proximity of Lake Wakatipu, the safety margins at the time were "seriously impacted".

Gunn joined Pacific Blue in 2005 as an Auckland-based captain and logged more than 16,000 flying hours, including 6000 hours flying Boeing 737s.

WITNESS REPORTS

At the time, witnesses told RNZ the plane flew dangerously low in dark skies.

Harbour master Marty Black, one of at least four witnesses, said the aircraft never climbed as it should, but instead flew at under 1000 feet as it tried to negotiate its way through mountains in thick cloud.

 "It couldn't have been above a thousand feet, it was low, bloody low, never climbed at all," he said.

Another witness Alan Kirker said he first heard unusual noise.

"I kept watching it and watching it."

It banked around the golf course and flew low down the lake.

"I thought, Jesus, man, it was banking almost on its side."

- The Southland Times

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