Decision in airline trial to be made next month

Last updated 10:49 04/09/2012

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A judge will decide next month whether to convict or acquit a pilot charged with careless operation of a Pacific Blue jet during a midwinter takeoff from Queenstown.

The Papakura pilot, 54, who has interim name suppression, appeared before Judge Kevin Phillips in Queenstown District Court charged with operating a Boeing 737 in a careless manner on June 22, 2010, a charge laid by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Prosecutor Fletcher Pilditch told the court passengers' assumptions of commercial aviation safety were without foundation because the pilot breached parts of the Pacific Blue flight operations - known in aviation as an exposition - and his takeoff engine-out safety plan was novel, untested and not approved by either the airline or the authority.

"There were standards, there was prescription and there were procedures, and the defendant departed from those standards from an objective assessment in a number of material respects."

Broadly, the authority's case alleged the pilot, 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 cutoff at 5.45pm.

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 using a figure-of-eight manoeuvre, the prosecution says.

Mr Pilditch said Queenstown aerospace was a relatively extreme environment and a contingency using aspects of another departure procedure incorporated into an engine failure plan was flawed methodology, illegal and manifestly unsafe.

Ultimately, the authority submitted there was insufficient certainty for requirements regarding visual flying, cloud cover and return-to-land planning. Possibly the greatest risk during the departure was confusion because procedures were not followed, training was not followed and the pilot and first officer were "not on the same page".

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.

Defence lawyer Matthew Muir said there was little consensus between highly qualified defence and prosecution witnesses.

Pacific Blue's exposition should not have been approved. There were inherent problems within the exposition and the court must be very careful defining "a bright line" between conformance and carelessness.

An exposition was not legislative, subject to frailties and any breach of a requirement was not necessarily careless because other operators regarded different requirements to Pacific Blue as careful, he said.

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"It's artificial to say aviation has fixed standards of compliance. Safe outcomes might be achieved without technical compliance with any one requirement."

He told the court there was no material dispute about the advantages of identifying Christchurch as an alternate aerodrome, if an engine failed during takeoff, and the pilot built conservatisms into every step of the departure.

His client was honourable with a long history in aviation. He was flying an aircraft with performance to burn and a rapidly improving cloud base had lifted substantially in the half-hour before takeoff.

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

Judge Phillips reserved a decision to next month.

- The Southland Times

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