Former pilot found guilty of flying tourists in severely damaged, unsafe aircraft in 2010

The CAA said "we're lucky that there weren't more serious consequences".
The CAA said "we're lucky that there weren't more serious consequences". Photo credit: Getty Images

A man has been found guilty of operating an aircraft in a manner that caused unnecessary endangerment after the former commercial pilot flew from Milford Sound to Queenstown with six tourists onboard, despite knowing the aircraft's propeller was severely damaged.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) confirmed the incident which took place on January 26, 2010.

The man was working as a senior pilot for a scenic tourist flight operator, flying tourists between Queenstown and Fiordland. While taking off from Big Bay - a beach north of Milford Sound - the aircraft's propeller was severely damaged by stones thrown up during the take-off run.

Despite being aware of the potential for damage when landing on strips such as Big Bay, the pilot did not conduct an inspection of the aircraft after return to Queenstown - not even a quick 'walk-around' which would have revealed the damage.

The pilot then flew to Milford Sound to pick up a group of tourists and it was at this stage he noticed damage to the propeller and phoned head office to inform them. He also attempted to minimise the damage by filing down the propeller - a maintenance task only appropriately qualified aircraft engineers should perform.

Despite not hearing back about the airworthiness of the propeller, the pilot decided to fly back to Queenstown with six passengers onboard. Upon landing, the aircraft was immediately grounded due to safety concerns of the company's owner.

Charges were laid in 2010, but the prosecution remained on hold for close to a decade as the former pilot was living overseas.

CAA Deputy Chief Executive David Harrison says the conviction highlights the importance of aircraft damage being assessed by appropriately qualified engineers, not by pilots taking a punt.

"Taking a 'she'll be right' attitude just doesn't cut it when there's damage to critical aircraft components such as propellers," Harrison said.

"Pilots and engineers each have hugely important roles to play in keeping aviation safe, but there are clear lines about the sort of work that needs to be carried out by qualified aircraft engineers.

"In this case we're lucky that there weren't more serious consequences given the seriousness of the damage to the prop."

The former pilot's association with the tourism operator ended shortly after this incident and the company is now under new ownership and management.

The defendant does not currently hold an active Commercial Pilot Licence and in order to reactivate it in future, he would have to pass the CAA's rigorous fit and proper person process, during which this conviction would be a strongly weighted consideration.

The man was also fined for performing maintenance on an aircraft without holding the appropriate aviation document. 

He was fined a total of $5750.