Pacific Blue pilot faces fine, imprisonment for aircraft endangerment

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New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority has laid two charges against a Pacific Blue pilot in command of a Boeing 737-800 flight who failed to comply with his carrier's visual flight rules.

The CAA says one of the charges against the pilot is unnecessary endangerment under section 44 of the Civil Aviation Act. If convicted, the offence carries a fine of up to NZ$10,000 ($7,930) or up to 12 months in jail, according to the CAA. It declines to specify the nature of the second charge.

"The investigation concluded that the airline's procedures and operating conditions were breached in this take off event in June 2010, and that safety was compromised as a result," says CAA director Steve Douglas.

The pilot was in command of Pacific Blue flight DJ89 on 22 June 2010 when the flight became delayed and departed Queenstown for Sydney approximately 18 minutes before twilight, the carrier says.

Queenstown, on New Zealand's South Island, required flights to operate under visual flight rules since the airport did not have approach and runway lighting.

Pacific Blue required its flights to takeoff no later than 30 minutes before twilight, ensuring adequate time for aircraft to make a safe return around the mountainous terrain in the event of a problem. That is more stringent than the CAA's rule requiring flights to take off before twilight.

The Queenstown air traffic control tower gave DJ89 takeoff clearance, a spokeswoman for ATC provider Airways New Zealand says. "The tower was able to give clearance as the flight was within civil evening twilight. It was operating within CAA limits." Electing to ignore internal company rules, however, "was ultimately the pilot's decision".

The CAA is not pressing charges against the flight's first officer or the airline.

"I am satisfied that Pacific Blue had the appropriate procedures in place for operations conducted at Queenstown," Douglas says.

The pilot has been stood down from duty pending a court ruling, a spokesman for Virgin Blue says. Pacific Blue is a New Zealand-based subsidiary of the Virgin Blue Group. The spokesman did not know the nationality of the pilot, who requested to have his name suppressed.

"We note no action is being taken against the company and as the matter relating to the captain of that flight is now before the court, it would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this time," the spokesman says.

Queenstown Airport is currently installing approach, runway, and passenger area lighting, a spokeswoman says. It expects to complete the installation this year. The airport already has precision approach path indicators available.

The case is due to be heard in the Queenstown District Court.