'Unrelenting pursuit': Student pilot sexually harassed by instructor mid-air, Civil Aviation Authority decided against prosecution

Newshub can reveal the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) decided not to prosecute a senior flying instructor accused of groping a student pilot mid-air during training flights.

In the third "Because it Matters" story on aviation safety, Newshub investigated the CAA's handling of a complaint that raised issues about safety and sexual harassment. 

Michelle Molloy, a student pilot, says she was groomed and faced an unrelenting sexual pursuit by her flying instructor. 

Molloy says the former police officer made repeated sexual advances - including asking if she wanted to join the mile high club - and touching her during training flights, all while other aircraft, such as Air New Zealand passenger planes, were passing. 

 She complained to the CAA. 

And Newshub has discovered the CAA had evidence an offence had "likely been committed", but instead, decided to give the instructor a warning. 

Michelle Molloy always dreamed of flying, and in 2010 she started training towards that career. 

"I always loved aviation and always wanted to fly, and when I got the opportunity to begin training I was ecstatic," she told Newshub. 

But she says the instructor, who was more than 20 years older than her, quickly developed an interest in her and started commenting on her body. 

"He was unrelenting. I had never experienced a pursuit like that," she says. 

"He groomed me from the beginning. He found my vulnerabilities and just honed in on them like a shark."

She says he made multiple sexual advances towards her during circuit training at Wanaka Airport, including asking if she wanted to join the 'mile high club' and touching her mid-air as other aircraft, including Air New Zealand passenger planes, were passing. 

"You're operating the aircraft and he was touching me or trying to touch me."

The instructor told Newshub: "Whatever happened was by mutual consent. It was a dark period of my life and I sought professional help. For her to say I harassed her and groomed her is probably a little bit untrue."

Molloy says she saw it as a relationship at the time, but now knows it wasn't. She says she had been ground down by his advances and there was a power imbalance.

"And then he just reached over and stroked my thigh and said 'that's what it's like with the aircraft, the controls of the aircraft. If you treat her roughly she won't respond'." 

Her parents ended up complaining to the CAA, which investigated the claims. 

Newshub has obtained a recording under the Official Information Act in which one investigator told Molloy: "As an instructor he has certain responsibilities, and I believe he has crossed over those boundaries." 

The investigator went on to say a relationship with an instructor is okay, but not while a plane is airborne.  

"That is another safety concern that I have," they said. 

Molloy says that's why she made the complaint - because it was a safety issue. She says more than a year passed before she received a letter from the CAA, which thanked her for her bravery - but it didn't state what action was taken in relation to her complaint. 

An Official Information Act request reveals: "An offence had likely been committed, but the Director having considered the public interest factors, including the potential impact on the victim, decided against a prosecution." 

Instead, the CAA warned the instructor and accepted assurances he'd changed his business and private life.

Victim advocate Ruth Money says that's not good enough. 

"Touching her inappropriately in a cockpit as she's trying to land a plane," she told Newshub. "So if their sole thing is safety, which is actually what she was complaining about, then do something about it." 

Molloy says she assumed the instructor would have his license revoked, which didn't happen.

"My experience with the CAA investigation was so much worse. The trauma I suffered because of the investigation was more trauma than I suffered at the flight school," she says.

"What has been the point of me traumatising myself to the extent that I've gone through to go through this investigation when that is the conclusion?"

She says she ended up being kicked out of the flying school by the instructor.

It's important to note that the CAA director who decided not to prosecute despite having the evidence was not the current director Graeme Harris. 

Harris told Newshub he thought sexual contact during a training flight was an "unsatisfactory practice" and he would have taken "robust action". 

The CAA says its investigators receive "significant training" in dealing with complaints of a sexual nature.