Intoxicated pilot caught just before flight

Last updated 11:08 14/07/2014

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An intoxicated pilot was caught preparing to fly a commercial passenger jet out of Canberra Airport in Australia while more than three times over the legal flying limit.

Skywest Captain Damien John Shelley, who blew 0.07 (0.07 grams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood) at the 6am start of his shift, planned to fly five commercial flights across the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales on October 13, 2012.

The pilot, then 42, had been drinking the night before and was picked up in a random test at Canberra Airport. 

A tester from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority recorded Captain Shelley, who had already signed on for work with the regional carrier, above the 0.02 limit for pilots. 

The result was confirmed twice using a second breathalyser and again by a medical review officer two days later. 

While the pilot and tester waited for the confirmation, Captain Shelley conceded he had drunk four pints between 5pm and 10pm the previous day. 

He planned to fly from Canberra to Sydney, before making four flights between Sydney and Port Macquarie later that day.

The incident was deemed so serious CASA referred it to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. 

The pilot was later charged with a criminal offence, but escaped with a non-conviction order in the ACT Magistrates Court earlier this month. Magistrate Peter Dingwall put him on a three-year good behaviour order.

Captain Shelley no longer works for Skywest, an airline that was wholly acquired by Virgin Australia just weeks later.

Such incidents are rare, according to CASA data. 

Of the thousands of random tests it conducts each year, only a tiny fraction of "safety sensitive" staff - including pilots, cabin crew and engineers - return a positive result. 

"The figures show over a number of years the level of positive drug and alcohol tests is consistently low," a spokesman said.

When questioned about the protections that exist for passengers, Virgin Australia assured it had rigorous systems to prevent intoxicated pilots from flying.

CASA random testing was backed up by a drug and alcohol management plan enforced by each airline. 

A Virgin spokesman said the airline had built a strong "fit for duty" culture among air crews that encouraged individuals to monitor themselves and colleagues and come forward with any concerns. 

"Safety is Virgin Australia's highest priority and all employees and contractors are subject to a strict drug and alcohol management plan policy, which includes comprehensive testing of staff to ensure we maintain the highest safety standards," he said.

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"Any employees who are found to have breached the DAMP policy are immediately removed from duty and managed in accordance with applicable policies."

- FFX Aus

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