Pilot's job in the balance

By Celia Crosbie

The Civil Aviation Authority testified that Roderick Gunn (below) would not have been able to fly his jet out of the mountainous Queenstown basin if an engine had failed. Photo / APN
The Civil Aviation Authority testified that Roderick Gunn (below) would not have been able to fly his jet out of the mountainous Queenstown basin if an engine had failed. Photo / APN

The Pacific Blue pilot convicted of a careless Queenstown takeoff is to meet his employer next week to discuss his flying future.

But the airline's owner, Virgin Australia, won't be drawn on whether captain Roderick Gunn still has a job.

The Auckland-based pilot, 55, was sentenced in Queenstown District Court on Tuesday for carelessly operating a Sydney-bound Boeing 737-800 on June 22, 2010.

He was fined $5100 and ordered to undertake extensive retraining but remains allowed to fly commercial aircraft. He must not operate as pilot-in-command on flights in and out of Queenstown for 12 months.

During sentencing, defence lawyer Matthew Muir told the court that if Gunn were to lose his pilot's licence as a result of his conviction he would be dismissed by his employer.

Gunn - a senior pilot with 30 years' commercial aviation experience, including becoming a training captain and a flight examiner - has been stood down from flying since the incident.

It will take him 17 months to retrain and become fit to fly again with a renewed licence.

He was to meet his employer after Easter to discuss his suspension and future with Pacific Blue, Mr Muir told the court.

"The position with his employer is uncertain," Mr Muir said.

A Virgin Australia spokeswoman yesterday refused to comment on whether Gunn would still have a job with the airline, or whether he would remain a training captain.

"I couldn't give you any further detail at this stage."

Mr Muir told Judge Kevin Phillips that Gunn had "lost face" among his peers and been "publicly humiliated" throughout his trial and sentencing. The case had taken "a very significant personal toll" on him and his family.

Judge Phillips told Gunn that despite his exemplary career, he showed a "wilful disregard" for the aviation rules he was bound by on the dark, wintry night he flew out of Queenstown.

"There was an arrogance in that your experience and abilities would overcome rules of law," the judge said. "Your actions increased the risk on your crew and increased the risk of tragedy occurring in the Queenstown area. Any accident could have been catastrophic."

Gunn took off from Queenstown with 64 passengers and six crew at 5.25pm, 11 minutes after the rules stipulated it was safe to do so at that time of year. That, compounded by low cloud and high cross-winds, meant that a prudent and reasonable pilot would have left the plane grounded, Judge Phillips found.

The Civil Aviation Authority claimed that if an engine had failed during or just after takeoff, the plane would not have been able to make it safely out of the mountainous basin to another airport.

- Mountain Scene

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