11 Jul 2012

Pilot within rights to fly out close to curfew, court told

11:16 pm on 11 July 2012

A retired airline pilot has told a court that a Pacific Blue pilot did not break the law and was within his rights to fly out of Queenstown close to a night-time curfew.

The 54-year-old pilot, who has name suppression, denies carelessly operating a Boeing 737 on 22 June 2010.

The prosecution says his takeoff 20 minutes from the curfew instead of 30 minutes endangered 70 passengers and crew on a flight bound for Sydney.

Fred Douglas, a former flight operations manager at Air New Zealand, gave evidence at the Queenstown District Court on Wednesday and said the takeoff was safe and legal.

Mr Douglas told the court a distinction needs to be made between the Pacific Blue's internal regulations, which he labelled confusing, and the Civil Aviation Authority rules which the pilot did not break.

He said the pilot's decision-making was logical and sound and, given the same set of circumstances, he would have made the same decision and taken off from Queenstown that day.

Mr Douglas also discounted the pilot being under pressure not to disappoint passengers, saying pilots postpone and cancel flights all the time because of weather conditions, and this was not a factor.

Pacific Blue's internal rules say a pilot has to take off with at least 30 minutes of civil twilight left to allow enough time to get back to the airport in the case of an emergency.

But elsewhere, the rules say that because Queenstown Airport's runway is so narrow, a pilot should head to an airport with a wider runway - in this case, Christchurch Airport.

Fred Douglas told the court he thought the wider airport runway imperative was more important and that overrode the first rule, so the pilot's safety plan meant that he was never going to head back to Queenstown and, therefore, he thought he could take off after the curfew cut-off.

Light levels debated

Earlier, the hearing analysed video footage of the incident.

The defence called Keith Bremner, an expert witness in video reproduction, who analysed light levels on Queenstown Airport's CCTV system and video footage filmed by one of the passengers.

The prosecution says the video footage shows it was very dark as the aircraft took off.

However the defence claims the cameras used automatic settings which altered the brightness of the footage, making it look much darker.

It says this was an unnatural reflection of the real light levels on the day when the plane took off.

Pacific Blue management to give evidence

Pacific Blue's senior performance manager and one of the airline's top managers who dealt with the incident and wrote an internal report are expected to give evidence.

The pilot at the centre of the case has been stood down on full pay since the incident.

The defence says this should have been an internal employment matter, and never should have been brought before a court.