7 Mar 2012

Pilot accused of flying plane carelessly

9:19 am on 7 March 2012

An alarm rang out in the cockpit of a Pacific Blue plane as it struggled to fly out of Queenstown with 70 people on board and a storm approaching, a court has been told.

A Pacific Blue pilot is accused of flying the Boeing 737 carelessly and endangering the lives of passengers and crew on 22 June 2010 when he took off from the South Island resort town bound for Sydney.

The 53-year-old has name suppression and has been suspended on full pay.

At the time of the incident, there were no runway lights at the airport or radar and pilots had to be clear of the airport 30 minutes before twilight. The Pacific Blue pilot operated on instrument flight rules. Runway lights have since been installed at the airport.

The Civil Aviation Authority told the Queenstown District Court on Monday that witnesses will describe a terrifying take-off procedure involving the flight.

Fletcher Pilditch, the lawyer acting for the CAA, said the pilot took off, disregarding minimum safe daylight levels in crosswinds which exceeded the airport's safety requirements.

The pilot was then forced to pitch the plane to a very low altitude to avoid cloud, essentially skimming over the top of the Kelvin Heights Golf Course.

Warning alarms were sounding on the flight deck and the co-pilot had to tell the pilot that the aircraft speed was about to exceed the safe level for the flaps settings, the court was told.

Mr Pilditch said the pilot acted carelessly and, had there been an engine failure shortly after takeoff, the plane may have crashed.

"In effect, this is all about the decision to operate in circumstances where the reasonable and prudent pilot would not have operated.

"Faced with the time of day, the various conditions reported to the defendant; the decision to go was a decision that fell below that standard, because it put the defendant in circumstances where he operated the aircraft in a manner that could be nothing but careless."

The court was told the pilot was unable to engage the autopilot, which would normally happen just after takeoff.

He unable to do that because the plane was operating outside the dynamic range for engaging the autopilot system and instead the captain was forced to wrestle the Boeing though the cloud before climbing out of the Wakatipu Basin.

Defence denies safety breached

The defence denies that the circumstances encountered on the day constituted a breach of safety.

Lawyer Matthew Muir told the court the cockpit warnings were normal and that the takeoff was not careless and does not constitute recklessness on the part of the captain.

Mr Muir says the defence will also call into question the operating manual used by Pacific Blue.

The hearing is expected to take two weeks and will include evidence from expert witnesses, passengers on the plane, air traffic controllers and other pilots, and recordings between the pilot and air traffic controllers on the day.