In the world of aircraft operators, it was an offence as serious as it gets. Yet the senior aircraft engineer who attacked a pilot in a restricted operating zone avoided being prosecuted by the police, who instead referred him to a community panel where he had to complete an anger management course. That could have easily been the end of the matter. However, the victim, unhappy with the lack of justice, complained to the Civil Aviation Authority. It took nearly a year before Lawrence McCann ended up before the courts, where he was eventually held accountable.
The figure Lawrence McCann cut in court was not one you might expect to climb onto an aeroplane and punch a pilot in the head.
Dressed casually in a well-cut sports shirt, McCann bore the hallmarks of an industry highflyer.
The well-regarded base manager for aviation engineering firm Fieldair, whose career has taken him around the world, barely flinched as the public heard for the first time what he’d done 18 months earlier.
On May 4, 2021, he “lost his cool” after the repeated comings and goings of the small but powerful twin-engine Cessna outside a hangar at Nelson Airport where an engineering crew was working.
With its propellers spinning at full throttle, McCann jumped on the wing of the Cessna, pulled the pilot’s hatch fully open, grabbed the pilot with both hands and pushed him across the cabin while swearing and yelling, “you f*****g stupid moron, you f*****g c***.”
He then punched the pilot in the head several times, knocking off his audio headset and glasses, and leaving him with grazes to his face. He was also hit around the shoulder and chest.
The assault was witnessed by the camera operator seated behind the pilot of the Cessna, which was damaged during the assault.
McCann’s reasons for doing so, he would argue, were around safety.
His team was working on a maintenance contract on a Jetstream passenger aircraft elevated on jacks inside a hangar.
The Cessna, operated by an aerial survey company, shared space in the Originair hangar but at the time it was parked outside, having come and gone a few times already that day.
By mid-afternoon, and with the tail of the Jetstream sticking out the door and taking the full blast of air from the Cessna’s spinning propellers as it prepared to leave on another flight, McCann snapped when his crew had to stop work once more.
The Jetstream was said to have swayed so much from the Cessna’s prop wash that the engineering crew feared it would tip over. Pilots spoken to by NZME say the Cessna pilot should have known better – you don’t run your engines at full revs close to an aircraft up on supports.
On May 17, a couple of weeks after the attack, McCann was arrested for assault, and on the same day, he was referred by the police to Te Pae Oranga Iwi Community Panel (TPO).
Police figures provided to NZME show he was one of 332 offenders from the Tasman police district referred to one of the panels in 2021, and one of 260 nationwide referred that year under the offence code of common assault (manually).
Te Pae Oranga, previously known as Community Justice Panels, have been in place since 2013, before being gifted the name Te Pae Oranga in 2018. They are is described as a “supported resolution process for low-level offenders focusing on education, prevention and accountability”.
The panels are made up of three people from the community and are designed to apply a more Māori framework to the community justice panel approach. Anyone from any ethnicity and background can be referred to Te Pae Oranga.
The referral process is quite detailed, and among the list of things the police must consider is whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. The police also say a “referral process” can start on the same day as an offence.
No charging document was lodged with the court because the police were satisfied on the day of his arrest that McCann met the criteria for panel referral, information received under the Official Information Act shows.
But the victim was unhappy with the path taken.
He lodged a complaint with the CAA and, after a nearly year-long investigation, it charged McCann with endangerment.
Independent aviation industry commentator Irene King said referring McCann to an iwi panel instead of prosecuting him through the courts was “very odd”, given how serious the incident was.
King said caution was needed when operating aircraft around hangars.
“They can blow people over and blow bits and pieces of things all over the place.”
King understands there’s a reasonable history to the lead-up to what happened, and that the engineers had expressed frustration about what was going on.
“This wasn’t a big hangar, and the engineers were doing some pretty intensive work in there.”
But it didn’t excuse McCann’s actions.
“This was an operational environment.
“There needed to be a lot more education in building awareness about hangar etiquette, but equally he [McCann] shouldn’t have lashed out.
“What he did was unacceptable. You can’t go around hitting people.”
McCann would later be challenged as to why he didn’t make more of an effort that day to find the pilot and speak to him about what was going on.
Much was made in court during the eventual CAA prosecution about how serious the potential consequences could have been as a result of McCann’s actions.
The authority’s claims it was “close to an act of terrorism” were however doused by the judge, and then King, who said to describe it as such was an exaggeration.
The blows knocked off the pilot’s glasses and headset. Dazed and bewildered, he ducked to avoid the punches. His feet and hands came off the aircraft’s controls, which meant he had technically “lost control” of the plane.
It was laden with fuel and was carrying oxygen tanks used by the pilot and camera operator for high-altitude work often required during aerial survey work.
At that moment, the aircraft could have started to roll away. McCann could have been pitched through the rapidly spinning propellor, or the fuel and oxygen-laden aircraft could have run into any of the nine or 10 nearby hangars, workshops and operations buildings which form Nelson’s aviation cluster.
Luckily it didn’t, most likely because of the angle of the nose wheel at that moment, the Nelson District Court heard last October.
Why did the police not prosecute Lawrence McCann?
From the chain of correspondence between the police and CAA, it’s clear the authority had lingering questions about why McCann had been referred to Te Pae Oranga.
On March 24 last year, the CAA asked the police specifically what the key decisions were which led them to refer McCann to the panel, rather than have him appear before the court on a charge of common assault.
The emails, which went back and forth, also suggest police did not hold a complete record of events. At one stage they asked the CAA to send McCann’s version of events, as he had not provided this information to the police.
The police told CAA investigation and response manager Dianne Cooze they had sent the complaint through to the iwi panel rather than the court because “police will not deal with any aviation-related offending, preferring to leave this to CAA”.
The police wouldn’t say why except to ask CAA.
However, a document released to a member of the public in November 2021 showed that in 2019 and 2020 the police took legal action on nine occasions for breaches of the Civil Aviation Act in 2019 and 2020.
King said in all her years in the industry, she had never known an instance where someone who offended was referred to an iwi panel in the aviation context.
She believed what happened that day reached the threshold which warranted police prosecution.
“He punched someone and that’s not lawful.
“If you got drunk on an aircraft and punched somebody you would be up in court and you would be prosecuted.”
In the Nelson District Court in October 2022, McCann’s request for a discharge without conviction from the charge brought by the CAA was refused and he was fined $2000.
His lawyer, Michael Vesty, argued the assault itself was “low level” and McCann had “worked hard to keep it away from court”, by working with the CAA, including an undertaking to complete safety-based courses.
Judge Tony Zohrab described the offending as “situational” by a senior and trusted member of the aviation industry who was not prone to such behaviour.
McCann did not respond to requests put through Fieldair for an interview, and neither did Fieldair chief executive John Read respond to questions from NZME.
The victim also declined to be interviewed, but the managing director of Aerial Surveys Limited, Steve Laming, said the incident had been “very distressing” for the pilot and the crew member.
King said there was no question it was scary for them, made more acute by the element of total surprise involved.
Laming said each had required time off work, but with the support of the close-knit team in Nelson, and support from the company, which was focused on their wellbeing, they did return to flying duties.
However, each had since moved on to new jobs with other companies.
“We did implement some operational changes to reduce any further stress for them while Mr McCann was still working in the hangar, which he continues to do,” Laming said.
He also said that damage to the leased aircraft was not significant, and he understood the cost to cover this had been paid directly to the owner.
King said that while consequences were warranted in this case, she didn’t believe prosecution was always the right solution.
“They don’t actually achieve a lot of gain in aviation safety.
“What achieves change is getting people to sit down, analyse and talk through the circumstances and how to avoid them occurring again.
King said there was a lot to be learned from what happened, particularly around how pilots should operate around hangars, most of whom were cautious and careful.
Without knowing McCann’s views, it appears others are satisfied with the final outcome.
Laming said justice appeared to have been served after CAA placed great significance on the seriousness of the incident.
“We do agree with that view,” he said.
The CAA said it was satisfied with the court’s decision, which may have a bearing on McCann’s ability to operate in the future.
The authority said his conviction would be considered during any renewal of aviation documents required by him as a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer, the same as anyone working in the industry.
“As a senior person, Mr McCann’s FPP [fit and proper person] status will be thoroughly reviewed as part of that organisation’s five-yearly certificate renewal.”
King said the best outcome remained an improvement in safety.
“From an aviation safety point of view, the best outcome is that everyone learned a heck of a lot from what happened.”
Timeline of events from correspondence between the police and CAA
May 4, 2021: Pilot assaulted by Lawrence McCann,
May 17, 2021: McCann arrested for common assault, referred by police on the same day to a Te Pae Oranga provider.
May 27, 2021: CAA investigation and response manager Dianne Cooze tells police the victim has complained to CAA which has opened an investigation.
March 23, 2022: CAA receives confirmation from police that no charging document for assault was filed in the Nelson Court. Noted in file that victim not happy with process.
March 24, 2022: Police tell CAA the reasons why the (arresting) officer decided on the TPO process is missing from the file, but that the matter fits with the eligibility criteria.
March 25, 2022: Police notified McCann has been charged under the CAA Act and that reparation is sought for damage to the plane.
October 26, 2022: McCann appears in the Nelson District Court; fined $2000 and refused a discharge without conviction.