The Civil Aviation Authority is welcoming the conviction of a former commercial pilot who flew from Milford Sound to Queenstown with six tourists onboard despite knowing the aircraft’s propeller was severely damaged.
In the Christchurch District Court last Friday, Judge Hunt convicted the man on one charge of operating an aircraft in a manner that caused unnecessary endangerment, and also fined him for performing maintenance on an aircraft without holding the appropriate aviation document, leading to total fines of $5750.
On January 26, 2010, the man was working as a senior pilot for a scenic tourist flight operator, flying tourists between Queenstown and Fiordland. While taking off from Big Bay, a beach north of Milford Sound, the aircraft’s propeller was severely damaged by stones thrown up during the take-off run.
Despite being aware of the potential for damage when landing on strips such as Big Bay, the pilot did not conduct an inspection of the aircraft after return to Queenstown, not even a quick ‘walk-around’ which would have revealed the damage.
The pilot then flew to Milford Sound to pick up a group of tourists and it was at this stage that he noticed the damage to the propeller and phoned head office to inform them of the damage. He also attempted to minimise the damage by filing down the propeller – a maintenance task only appropriately qualified aircraft engineers can perform.
Despite not hearing back about the airworthiness of the propeller, the pilot decided to fly back to Queenstown with six passengers onboard. Upon landing, the aircraft was immediately grounded in the interests of safety by the company’s owner.
Charges were laid in 2010, but the prosecution remained on hold for close to a decade, as the former pilot was living overseas.
CAA deputy chief executive David Harrison says the conviction highlights the importance of aircraft damage being assessed by appropriately qualified engineers, not by pilots taking a punt.
"Taking a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude just doesn’t cut it when there’s damage to critical aircraft components such as propellers," David says.
"Pilots and engineers each have hugely important roles to play in keeping aviation safe, but there are clear lines about the sort of work that needs to be carried out by qualified aircraft engineers.
"In this case we’re lucky that there weren’t more serious consequences given the seriousness of the damage to the prop."