Papua New Guinea court convicts crew for illegal landing

 - January 26, 2007, 11:10 AM

A court in Papua New Guinea (PNG) convicted Australian pilots Andrew Reid and Peter McGee of making an illegal landing in a Cessna Citation II at the disused Kieta airstrip, near Aropa on the island of Bougainville. The court imposed fines of more than $100,000, but the pilots avoided the 12-month jail terms the nation’s civil aviation authority (CAA) demanded.

In a sentence issued late last year, the Waigini District Court also suspended McGee’s PNG commercial pilot license for 12 months. Both pilots are appealing the verdict, which found them guilty of “operating an aircraft in a careless and dangerous manner.” The jet is impounded at Jackson’s International Airport in the PNG capital Port Moresby.

On September 30 last year Reid and McGee landed the Citation II, which Reid’s executive charter operator Tasman Australia Airlines owns, at the disused landing strip. The island of Bougainville has been engulfed in a long-running, violent civil war between the PNG government and separatist forces that call it “the Royal Kingdom of Meekamui.” According to PNG newspaper The National, the aircraft was also carrying Noah Masingku, who is wanted in the country for alleged fraud, and a cache of “high power” weapons.

According to local press reports, the Royal Australian Air Force has been using the airfield in support of its government’s official peacekeeping efforts on Bougainville. However, local police, who are themselves supported by Australian police officers, have denied any knowledge of these operations.

During the trial, the court heard from police sergeant Michael Ward who said that in an October interview Reid initially denied having landed the aircraft at Aropa before admitting that he had landed there and claimed that “the Meekamui government” had approved the landing in writing.

This claim apparently incensed PNG authorities, who do not acknowledge the self-styled separatist state. Senior magistrate Ivo Cappo accused the pilots of “blatant disregard for PNG” laws for seeking to use flight approvals from “an unknown authority.” There is no record of the Citation pilots having filed a flight plan with the CAA Flight Information Services center.

Reid’s defense attorney, Greg Sheppard, argued that Reid could not be held responsible for the landing at Aropa because he was not the pilot-in-command for the flight. But prosecution counsel Erik Andersen countered that, as owner of Tasman Australia Airlines, Reid had decided where the Citation flew. He argued that Reid had asked McGee to fly to Aropa three times before the September 30 flight. McGee, it was claimed in court, had refused to make the flight on these occasions, pointing out that the airfield is unlicensed.

Tasman Australia Airlines is based at Paradise Point in the northern Australian state
of Queensland.