Pacific Blue captain fined for risky take-off

By Celia Crosbie

Roderick Gunn must not operate as a pilot in command of flights in and out of Queenstown for 12 months. Photo / Supplied
Roderick Gunn must not operate as a pilot in command of flights in and out of Queenstown for 12 months. Photo / Supplied

A judge who sentenced a Pacific Blue pilot for his careless Queenstown take-off has raised concerns about industry pressure to keep passenger aircraft "off the ground" and on schedule.

Auckland-based captain Roderick Gunn was yesterday fined $5100 for carelessly operating a Sydney-bound aircraft - Flight 89 with 70 people on board - in dark conditions and outside the airline's and Civil Aviation Authority flight rules.

Air traffic controllers who watched the plane take off made comments that included: "F***ing hell, I haven't seen this before", "Oh he's screwed" and "How big are his gonads?"

The 55-year-old married father-of-two is still allowed to fly, but must undertake extensive training before he renews his licence, which expired during his 2-year stand-down after the incident on June 22, 2010.

Gunn must not operate as a pilot in command of flights in and out of Queenstown for 12 months.

During sentencing in the Queenstown District Court yesterday, Judge Kevin Phillips said he held concerns about pilots feeling the urgency to keep aircraft moving.

"In my view, there appears to be some degree of either peer pressure or operator pressure to personnel, and I find it alarming that a person as experienced as you has come to need to get this aircraft off the ground, out of Queenstown, in these circumstances," he said.

"If there is the prevalent view among senior pilots that 'the job has got to be done' then that has to be, in my view, denounced."

Gunn's good character from his exemplary 30-year commercial flying career "is now gone forever" because of his wilful disregard for aviation rules, Judge Phillips said.

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.

He was also flying into low cloud and high cross-winds.

During Gunn's trial last year, the prosecution claimed that had there been an engine failure during or immediately after take-off, the plane would not have been able to get safely out of the mountain-surrounded Queenstown basin.

A transcript of an interview with Gunn after the incident showed he regarded flying that day as "just another day in the office".

Judge Phillips found that to be an aggravating comment.

"You seemed to ignore the fact that you had to maintain visibility not only with the lake and the ground below, but also the mountainous terrain you had to fly around.

"Somehow, you as pilot-in-command could make your own rules."

CAA director of civil aviation Graeme Harris welcomed the sentencing.

"While we prefer to work with airlines and pilots that share a common interest in safety, there is a threshold beyond which those involved in aviation must be held accountable for their actions and that is what has happened in this case."

A spokeswoman for Pacific Blue owner Virgin Australia said the company "accepts the decision of the court, however will not be going into further detail".

- Otago Daily Times

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