Pilot Convicted For Illegal Charter Flight

After a crash, the Piper Cherokee was found to be overweight.

A British private pilot was recently convicted of operating an illegal charter flight, and a flight that was unsafe, following a trial in Manchester, England.

Robert Murgatroyd commenced a flight in a Piper Cherokee from Barton Aerodrome, near Manchester, to the Isle of Barra, Scotland, on Sept. 9, 2017. He had taken payment of £500 from each of his three passengers, who were bird watchers hoping to see the American Redstart, which had not been observed for 30 years.

He was found to have been making a profit from the flight, rather than it being a cost-sharing flight as currently permitted under European Union Aviation Safety Agency regulations. Thus he should have held a commercial license and the aircraft should have been included on an air operator certificate (AOC).

After departure in poor weather from a wet runway at the small general aviation airfield, the aircraft struggled to get airborne and crashed shortly afterward close to a major highway. The pilot suffered a broken nose, and the passengers also suffered minor injuries.

The Civil Aviation Authority and Greater Manchester Police mounted a criminal investigation, separate from the inquiry by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). Investigators found that the Cherokee was 426 pounds over the maximum takeoff weight of 2,150 pounds.

The jury found Murgatroyd guilty on all seven counts of the charges, which included recklessly endangering the safety of an aircraft and the occupants; conducting a public transport flight without an AOC; acting as a pilot without holding an appropriate license; and flying outside the flight manual limitations. The judge set sentencing for March 15.

"This was a very serious incident that could have ended with fatalities…We hope his convictions will deter other pilots from ignoring the law for personal profit,” said Alison Slater, head of the UK CAA's Investigation and Enforcement Team.

Spotlight on Charter

The Air Charter Association (BACA) said it is “pleased to note the verdicts of the jury” in the case, given that Murgatroyd had organized the illegal charter. It noted that the case is “symptomatic of a wider problem caused by the blurring of the line between commercial and private aircraft operations. The current regulatory regime does not adequately protect the boundary and has left members of the public exposed to risks of which they are largely unaware.”

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BACA reports that it engaged with the UK CAA over its concerns, in particular following the emergence of flight cost-sharing websites and “the lack of public awareness about the law and implications of paying for flights on non-commercial aircraft.” It is concerned that there is little public understanding of the “lower standards of maintenance, pilot training, and flight planning…when compared to commercial air transport flights.”

“The commercial exploitation of the cost-sharing regime puts direct pressure on pilots to fly in marginal conditions or to push the boundaries of their pilot skills, or the performance of their aircraft. This case is a stark example of that problem,” according to BACA.

BACA chairman Richard Mumford added, “Our association, which represents the interests of over 250 companies involved in legal aircraft charter, has become increasingly concerned at the way cost sharing and short-term day leasing is being seen as an easy way of circumventing the very clear laws on chartering aircraft. 

“We hope that this verdict…will focus the minds of private pilots considering pushing the boundaries when it comes to cost-sharing, especially with the relative ease that websites and apps allow them to advertise flights to the general public, who are largely unaware of the dangers and risks involved. We also hope that it will help to raise awareness and understanding among members of the public to enable them to make informed decisions about how and with whom they choose to fly.”

Potential illegal charter flights in Europe have also come under scrutiny since the crash of a Piper Malibu near the Channel Islands with footballer Emiliano Sala on January 21. The AAIB and other authorities are still investigating the cause, but it has emerged this week that pilot David Ibbotson did not hold a commercial pilot license and might have also been relying on cost-sharing rules.