The jury in the trial of a pilot whose plane hit powerlines and plunged into the Clarence River at Ewingar in 2014 resulting in the death of 11-year-old Kayla Whitton has heard closing submissions.
John Crumpton, 55, of Goonengerry, faces charges of manslaughter, operating an aircraft recklessly to endanger the life of a person, operating an aircraft recklessly to endanger a person or property and flying an aircraft below 500 feet.
The charges relate to a crash in Mr Crumpton's Maule M-5 four-seater plane on April 12, 2014.
Crown prosecutor Jeff McLennan SC told the jury Mr Crumpton did not know there were height restrictions on how low you could fly in unpopulated areas.
Mr. McLennan said he flew at least 420 feet below the legal height restrictions of 500 feet.
"This was a journey that would never be approved by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority CASA," he said.
The jury heard Mr Crumpton had never flown so low in the area of the crash before, but he had done so further down-river.
Mr. McLennan said the jury must unanimously prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Mr Crumpton was criminally negligent by his conduct of flying so low.
Defence barrister Tony Bellanto QC reminded the jury they must consider the level of criminal negligence Mr Crumpton displayed and whether it was deserving of serious criminal punishment.
Mr. Bellanto highlighted there had been 119 crashes in 10 years by light planes into powerlines.
He told the jury there was no liaison between CASA and Essential Energy about the location of powerlines.
The jury heard Mr Whitton and his daughter Kayla had flown in 2013 with Mr Crumpton over Cape Byron.
Mr. Bellanto said Mr Crumpton did every possible safety check on his plane before the flight.
"At the time he thought he was aware of all the hazards in the area," he said.
"If he wasn't aware of the powerlines and had taken steps to be aware, why should he be convicted."
The trial continues.
Wirestrike involving Maule M-5, VH-HOG, 50 km WSW of Casino, NSW on 12 April 2014
Investigation number: AO-2014-068
Investigation status: Completed
On 12 April 2014, a Maule M-5 aircraft, registered VH-HOG, collided with a powerline spanning the Clarence River, approximately 50 km west-south-west of Casino, New South Wales. The pilot was accompanied on the private category flight by two passengers, an adult and a child. The aircraft departed controlled flight after the wirestrike and impacted the water, coming to rest inverted with the cabin submerged.
The pilot and front-seat adult passenger escaped the cockpit through one of the forward doors and attempted to free the rear-seat child passenger from the flooded cabin. After repeated attempts by the pilot to open the rear-right cabin door, the rear-seat passenger was recovered through a cockpit door. Sustained attempts to resuscitate the rear-seat passenger were unsuccessful.
What the ATSB found
The aircraft was capable of normal operation prior to the wirestrike. The weather conditions in the vicinity were suitable for visual flight.
The wirestrike and resulting loss of aircraft control was an unintended consequence of the pilot’s spur of the moment decision to fly at very low level along the river, in an unfamiliar environment and below the minimum stipulated height for flights over unpopulated areas. The pilot reported seeing the powerline cables just before the collision, but with insufficient time to avoid a wirestrike. The pilot did not hold an approval to conduct low-flying operations and had not completed any training to identify the hazards associated with such operations. The powerline was not fitted with visual warning markers, nor was there any requirement for such markers in this case.
The submerged, flooded and inverted cabin increased the difficulty experienced by the occupants in exiting the aircraft. Furthermore, impact damage sustained by the right wing likely rendered the rear-right cabin door unusable as an emergency exit, delaying the recovery of the rear-seat passenger.
This accident reaffirms the risk of unnecessary and unauthorized low flying.
Operations at low altitude expose an aircraft and its occupants to a number of environment‑specific hazards and result in significantly reduced safety margins. Powerline cables and other wires, which can be encountered even in relatively remote locations, are typically very difficult to see and present a critical hazard to any low-flying aircraft. In recognition of these and the other specific risks and hazards of low-level flying, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority requires pilots to receive special training and endorsements before conducting low-level operations.
The operation of an aircraft in close proximity to terrain or water limits the opportunity to recover from any loss of control or respond to any in-flight emergency when compared to flight at higher altitudes.