A recent Supreme Court case highlights the importance of early investigation and preservation of evidence of transport incidents by investigating authorities.

Key points for consideration:

  • Supreme Court granted permanent stay of proceedings on the basis of delay in investigation and prosecution
  • High Court appeal reversed stay of proceedings and resulted in jury finding pilots not guilty of all charges.

Two commercial pilots charged with reckless operation of an aircraft during take-off have been acquitted of all charges. The two pilots, a captain and a first officer, were operating a Boeing 737 from Launceston to Melbourne. The aircraft’s departure took place after the closure of the airport’s control tower, so the pilots were required to activate the airport’s runway lights through radio signals. It was alleged that the pilots failed to do this and thereby endangered the lives of approximately 70 passengers on board.

The allegations were strenuously denied by the pilots who stated that the lights were on at all times prior to take-off. On behalf of the pilots, it was contended that:

  • witness observations of the lights being off were likely explained by an anomaly in the airport lighting system which caused the lights to extinguish just as the aircraft was leaving the ground, at which point the pilots could not see the runway
  • on the basis of expert aviation and lighting evidence that there was sufficient light emanating from the aircraft to make the take-off without lights safe
  • on the basis of psychological evidence, that any failure of the pilots to notice the lights extinguishing could be explained by inadvertence rather than recklessness.

The pilots were prosecuted in the Supreme Court of Tasmania. In 2008 the Supreme Court granted a permanent stay of the proceedings on the basis of delay in investigation and prosecution which resulted, among other things, in loss of data on the aircraft’s flight data recorder which could have established the pilots’ innocence.

However, later in 2008, the High Court allowed an appeal reversing the stay and directed that the matter be listed for trial in the Supreme Court. The trial resulted in a jury finding the pilots not guilty of all charges