Pilot competent: witness testimony

An expert witness says he would have let his daughter fly in an aircraft captained by a Pacific Blue pilot charged two years ago with careless use of an aircraft.

Captain Stuart Julian, who has more than 13,000 hours' flying experience, told the Queenstown District Court yesterday that despite confusion among the crew, weather conditions and cockpit warnings, the pilot passed a test used by air-pilot examiners - "Would I put my daughter on that flight? " - a measure he said was used to assess whether a pilot was competent.

Prosecution lawyer Fletcher Pilditch, at the end of his cross-examination of Capt Julian, asked whether he would "still put your daughter on that flight".

"Yes, I would," Capt Julian replied.

Capt Julian spent the day in the witness stand, addressing issues about the crosswind, cockpit warnings and the figure-of-eight contingency plan chosen by the pilot, who faces charges dating back to June 22, 2010.

He told the court and Judge Kevin Phillips the crosswind limits set by an airline can be broken, contrary to evidence previously given during the case by the Pacific Blue pilot, who has name suppression.

Capt Julian was of the view the 16-knot wet-runway crosswind limit set by Pacific Blue was an expectation of pilots; it was a guide and had little to do with the safety of the flight in question.

Although pilots were expected to follow the 16-knot crosswind limit, he did not want to give the court the impression the limit was a final determinant of a pilot's decision to depart.

On June 22, 2010, the 54-year-old pilot, of Auckland, left Queenstown for Sydney in a Boeing 737, within the company's evening civil twilight (ECT) departure limit. The plane took off at 5.25pm, after the Pacific Blue ECT of 5.14pm, but before the official ECT of 5.46pm. It landed safely in Sydney.

The flight had been scheduled to leave Queenstown at 4.30pm, but the pilot had received news of a front passing through, which included wind gusts of up to 26 knots at the airport.

Last week, the pilot conceded the 16-knot limit was not just a guideline, but a rule the company's pilots were to follow. However, his defence was he disagreed with the control-tower readings at the time from his assessment of the nearby windsock, which read well under 16 knots, he said.

Official crosswind levels at the time of takeoff are disputed between the Civil Aviation Authority and the pilot: they range between 14 and 19 knots.

Mr Pilditch asked Capt Julian if it was an unreasonable expectation for passengers that a pilot would abide by the company limits.

"No, but it has little to do with the safety and regularity of the flight. It is there for use and guidance."

Capt Julian acknowledged the limit was not there for pilots to interpret as they chose, and in civil flying, pilots could not have varying limits from one another.

He had been "offended" by an earlier witness' analogy that a plane was much like a Ferrari, which has a speed it can reach, but the legal speed limit still applies.

When asked by Mr Pilditch if he would have commended the pilot had he stayed on the ground in the conditions that day, he said he would have.

"Any time a pilot has a doubt, then you don't need to go."

Earlier yesterday, Judge Phillips allowed the pilot's wife to rejoin proceedings, after she was asked to leave the courtroom on Monday afternoon because of a remark she had made, which had been overheard by Mr Pilditch.

Judge Phillips had warned the woman that contempt of his court would result in imprisonment.


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