Queenstown helicopter pilot prosecuted after lucky escape

Queenstown airport. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Queenstown airport. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A Queenstown helicopter pilot who flew into a high tension wire while on a scenic flight with six passengers on board has been fined $3500.

Callum Fisher was flying an Airbus AS350 on the return leg of a scenic flight to the Remarkables mountain range in clear and calm conditions on July 25 last year.

During his approach to Queenstown Airport, he was told by air traffic control to delay his approach, and to continue to Lake Johnson so that a passenger jet could land.

Fisher entered a valley as he flew in a southerly direction away from Lake Johnson, and as he approached a ridgeline of Queenstown Hill, was given clearance to land.

The helicopter’s height above the ridge then reduced to 80 feet, breaching Civil Aviation rules that set a minimum height of 500 feet.

At this point, as the aircraft was flying at 40 knots, Fisher saw a horizontal wire ahead.

Despite him attempting an evasion manoeuvre, the wire struck one of the main rotor blades, tail rotors and stabiliser before snapping and coiling itself around the tail boom.

He managed to make a "soft, controlled emergency landing" nearby, and no-one aboard was injured.

The helicopter, operated by The Helicopter Line, sustained damage estimated at up to $500,000.

Fisher, who has over 4900 hours on helicopters since getting his commercial helicopter licence in 2006, was sentenced in the Queenstown District Court today on a Civil Aviation Act charge of operating an aircraft in a manner that caused unnecessary danger.

Judge Catriona Doyle read two victim impact statements to the court, the first by a husband and wife, who said although they were not physically injured in the incident, suffered lasting emotional harm from the realisation they "could’ve died" in the incident.

They would never fly in a helicopter again, the couple said.

In the second statement, two sisters said they applauded Fisher’s "professionalism, quick thinking and expertise" after seeing the wire, which had averted a more serious incident.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) counsel Anna McConachy said the incident had posed a "serious risk to the safety of everyone on board".

"It was more a matter of good luck rather than good management that this wasn’t a more serious incident."

Although the charge carried a maximum sentence of a fine of $10,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment, a fine of $5000-$6000 was considered appropriate because of the "low-level, one-off" nature of the incident.

Fisher’s counsel Sam Crosbie said the defendant had accepted responsibility for breaching the minimum height rule.

He had not read an email notifying all pilots about the placement of the wire, Crosbie said.

A fine of between $1000 and $3000 was appropriate.

Judge Doyle told Fisher his actions were a "clear breach of both the rules and the requirements of your employment".

The passengers had been relying entirely on both his expertise and his compliance with the rules.

"By your conduct, you’ve placed their lives in danger, even though you did not intend to do so, and even though you then took extraordinary steps to keep them safe."

The prosecution should send a clear message to all pilots to comply with the rules, Judge Doyle said.

She applied discounts for Fisher’s prompt guilty plea, and co-operation with the CAA, to reach a fine of $3500, while noting the sentencing options available to her were "really limited".

The court had not been asked to impose a more significant penalty, such as suspending Fisher’s pilot licence, she said.

The Helicopter Line owner Mark Quickfall said it expected its pilots to comply with the company’s operating procedures as well as Civil Aviation rules.

Fisher no longer worked for the company, Quickfall said.