Decision to make illegal landing ends with prosecution for pilot

A well-known Omarama farmer and former Waitaki District Council councillor crashed his plane when illegally landing in the Hawea Conservation Park, resulting in an appearance in the Oamaru District Court yesterday.

Michael Bernard Thomas (71), retired, of Killermont Station, was convicted and discharged after he admitted landing his Cessna 180A in the Dingle Burn Valley on February 11 without a concession or permit, an offence under the Conservation Act.

Judge Joanna Maze said while the landing was an intentional breach, with Thomas knowing a permit was required, the offence was towards the lower end of the scale. She recognised Thomas had given generously and served the community for decades.

He took pride in his reputation and found his first-ever appearance in court an embarrassment, she said.

Department of Conservation counsel Pene Williams said landing an aircraft in a conservation park required a concession or permit. Non-commercial pilots such as Thomas could obtain a permit for $23 for up to four landings a year, outside exclusion periods.

About 3pm on February 11, a fishing party in the Dingle Burn Valley, which included a helicopter pilot, saw Thomas land his Cessna on the Yards Gully airstrip, heard a "tearing of metal" and saw the plane crash.

When a witness arrived at the airstrip, people on the plane had managed to get out and were not injured.

Thomas identified himself as the pilot and said he had hit a rock and "should have known better".

The pilot with the fishing party flew the plane's passengers out of the area in his helicopter.

Thomas told the department he had English friends on the plane and flew into the area so they could take photographs.

The department felt it had no option in the circumstances but to prosecute, Ms Williams said.

Counsel David Jackson said Thomas had lived in the Omarama area since he arrived as a 7-year-old, farmed Killermont Station for 50 years before retiring and was involved in a large number of community organisations and events.

Thomas was closely associated with the area, involved heavily in resource management and conservation issues, including supporting and assisting the Department of Conservation in the past and future.

"He lives and breathes this part of the country," he said.

Thomas' previous unblemished record was a matter of personal pride, the effect of the prosecution yesterday "carries some sting" and was "an embarrassment", Mr Jackson said.


Prosecution is not mandatory

Police have discretion about whether to charge offenders, thank goodness. I am sure DOC is the same. Avoiding clogging up the courts with cases where there is a better way of making good the damage to society is of benefit to all of us. If a tagger cleans up his own painted messes and in addition, picks up street litter for several blocks isn't that better that police can then drop charges against him?

Likewise the pilot with an outstanding record of service to the community, would it not have been better to get him to e.g. pay for and escort some free minibus trips to the areas he loves and tell the passengers about why this country is important, and what DOC does to look after it and why their rules are important for the preservation of its values for future generations?

There needs to be more emphasis on getting and giving value, not on pointless punishment, it's not like this man was going to set a trend for all and sundry landing their planes all over the conservation estate unless DOC wasted money and resouces to drag him through the court system.

To court for non payment of $23?

How much time did the taxpayer pay DOC for to prepare this case against a reputable man who is a first time conviction over a 71-year stretch? I know he will have to pay the court fees but what about the lawyer and DOC employees that prepared the case?

How much court time was wasted over $23?

I would have thought that crashing his (assumedly) prized machine would have been karma enough for the trespass.