Smoking pilot strikes again

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Plane skis to a U-turn at Taro airport, SolAir blames mechanical fault & bad runway

BY BARNABAS MANEBONA

SOLOMON Airlines is again under the spotlight as reports surface that a trip to Taro mid last month had ended up in a near-disaster landing. The pilot is none other than the controversial expat dubbed by media as the ‘Smoking Pilot’.

Island Sun has also been reliably informed that management have kept the incident under the wraps, and no action has been taken on the responsible pilot, two weeks on.

Passengers of flight IE352 thought they were witnessing their final hours as the Twin Otter made a speedy bumpy landing and skid uncontrollably along the whole runway. Upon reaching the end of the runway, the plane reportedly skid a sharp U-turn to a halt.

Speaking to Island Sun, a passenger in that near-fatal trip, speaking on condition of anonymity, admits that he was praying for his life, fearing just when the plane would flip over.

“I’ve just returned from the province, and am shocked that this incident is not in the media despite it being more serious than other incidents which are minor in comparison but have been reported. The incident took place on August 14, that’s like two weeks ago, but there is just silence even from the SolAir.”

The passenger describes horrifying details of the dangerous landing they were subjected to under SolAir’s supposedly Check & Trainer Captain.

“The plane was a full house. And, I noticed as we were lowering to land that the plane did not slow down as usual, which struck me as odd.

“The jolt of that bumpy touch down still haunts me, and the erratic skiing of the plane towards the end of the runway was deathly terrifying.

“But worse was that 180 degree U-turn at the end of the runway where we thought the plane was going to flip over,” said the passenger, who is a frequent flyer of that route.

The passenger adds that one thing they noticed after making their hasty exit from the plane was the direction of the wind sock, which pointed in such a way to indicate that they had landed with the wind behind them.

“We were quite shocked to see this and it added to our anger that the pilot had landed us with the wind blowing us on. The airlines management should take immediate action on this pilot.

“We recognise him [the pilot] from the media reports as the one in the smoking incident in Rennell and the burst tyre incident in Honiara during a training session.

“Solomon Airlines, what are you waiting for before you act? Are you waiting for lives to be lost before you act on this pilot?” the passenger asks.

When queried on the matter, Solomon Airlines CEO Brett Gebers on Saturday said, “The incident that you have referred to has been fully documented and is being investigated by the Airline’s Safety Department. No fault is attributable to the crew who were suddenly faced with a very difficult situation which they dealt with perfectly. The combination of a mechanical fault and a very wet and slippery runway led to the incident. I am thankful that we had a very experienced Captain flying the aircraft as his skill and experience ensured a safe outcome.”

Gebers, who also holds the position of Chief Pilot, says that this is not the first time for such incident to happen in Taro.

“The same type of incident has happened on several occasions over the past 20 years,” said Gebers.

“Many of the runways to which we operate have received no maintenance for the past 30 years and as a consequence most have poor drainage which often leads to soft muddy areas that are not apparent from the air. We rely on our agents at the airports to report on the runway conditions.

“We are constantly criticised by the travelling public for cancelling flights to airports which we know are waterlogged. The safety of all comes first and we will always take appropriate action to ensure everyone remains safe despite the inconvenience it may cause. We have had to suspend operations to Suavanao for the past few weeks due to holes in the runway making it unsafe.

“All of our aircraft are flown by a crew of two pilots, both of whom have clearly defined roles and duties as the pilot flying and as the pilot who is monitoring. When a finger is pointed at one of the pilots, the other is automatically implicated because his or her actions or inactions play a significant role in the outcome of every flight.

“No matter how hard people try, the smoking incident and a mechanical failure cannot be linked. Trying to link them is not helping anyone.” Said CEO Gebers.

Speaking to Island Sun on Friday night, on condition of anonymity, a top brass in the airline independently confirmed management having received report of the incident.

The source also confirmed to Island Sun that the pilot involved is the same pilot behind the Smoking Incident in Rennell earlier this year, and the burst tyre incident at the Honiara airport; both incidents are understood to be the first of their kind.

“Yes, the pilot in the Taro incident is the same one in the earlier incidents of smoking in the pilot cockpit in Rennell and the burst tyre during a check and training session in Honiara.

“He is Ray McLellan, from Australia who was brought in by CEO Brett Gebers and Bill Tyson with the announcement that Mr McLellan would bring in much needed experience and improvement to the domestic service, early this year.”

The source also adds that McLellan has already received a warning letter for one of the two previous incidents, an action by management which the source believes to be ‘too light for a serious offence’.

Island Sun is following up on this matter, and is seeking comments from relevant authorities.

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