Graham Lindsay underwent medical checks and then grounded during a period of unrest at CAA. Photo / File
By Phil Pennington, RNZ
A commercial airline pilot accused of risking killing all his passengers has won a scathing judgment against the Civil Aviation Authority.
The judge said the Crown regulator may have been “willing to overreact” when he banned Graham Lindsay, while suggesting he was a narcissist and a stalker.
Lindsay was put through medical checks and then grounded during a period of unrest at CAA.
Judge Tompkins’ ruling said the CAA had no grounds for doing so.
The agency director, acting through his chief medical officer, “was overzealous and wrong in his misplaced and unfounded view that Mr. Lindsay was a threat to aviation safety.” .
The CAA says it accepts the judge’s criticism and that there were “clear gaps”.
Lindsay told RNZ that it took her five years to clear her name but it “was worth it”.
Now 63, Lindsay was a senior flying captain for Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong when the CAA received a charge that he was mentally unstable.
Initially anonymous, he said “he risked deliberately crashing his plane and killing himself, his crew and all of his passengers,” according to a Wellington District Court ruling.
His accuser turned out to be the husband of his ex-wife, who had gone through an acrimonious breakup with Lindsay.
Several medical experts have evaluated Lindsay. But the CAA did not tell two of them who the informant was. When they later found out, they questioned the validity of the charge.
Chief Medical Officer Dougal Watson was also suspicious at first, but within a week of Lindsay’s medical certificates being suspended.
The CAA placed him under medical surveillance for two years.
No security problem arose. Nevertheless, in May 2018, the authority doubled down and banned him from carrying passengers.
“For the first time in his long career, Mr. Lindsay was unable to continue his commercial flights,” said the judge.
The ban was lifted within months.
But Lindsay didn’t let this lie.
During his appeal earlier this year, he collapsed in court over the impacts on him, according to media reports.
Five years later, he was “globally successful,” the judge said.
Homicide-suicide thefts are unusual – there have only ever been 18 cases in history, with 732 deaths.
For example, in 2015, when a suicidal co-pilot killed 150 people in an accident in France.
Watson the same year made a presentation to a local medical aviation group about the accident and in April 2016 wrote about the risks in an international journal.
A month later, the indictment against Lindsay landed.
“The timing of this article’s publication… is at least suggestive of the possibility that Dr. Watson was prepared to overreact to Mr. Lindsay’s case,” the judge said.
Psychiatrist CAA turned to, Dr. Chris Kenedi, raised the question of “personality structure” as it relates to Lindsay: Later, Kenedi in a journal in 2019 wrote about personality structure as a key risk factor in aviation.
The CAA has always maintained that it fulfilled its primary duty to passenger safety to respond as it did.
But the judge said the director used Lindsay’s frustrations with what he was going through to make “unfavorable unfounded decisions” about his fitness.
The director was Graeme Harris, who retired last year shortly after an investigation found the CAA had a toxic culture of bullying for years.
The court ruling shows that the CAA hardly checked Lindsay’s case with anyone else.
Other pilots had called it “exceptional”, “faithful, reliable and safe”.
However, soon after Hong Kong aviation authorities were alerted, they rushed back to Lindsay. That should have given the CAA some thought, but it isn’t, the judge said.
“Become a stalker”
Instead, at the end of two years of medical surveillance, assessments and meetings, Watson told a key meeting that the pilot had “significant narcissistic personality traits, possibly even the narcissistic personality ”.
Watson had discussed this with Kenedi, who said Lindsay likely had a “narcissistic personality structure.”
Another strike against Lindsay was Watson’s claim that his behavior towards CAA staff showed that he had impaired judgment under stress.
He later said Lindsay could “stalk” him at industry conferences.
“I’m a little worried that this pilot will become some kind of stalker,” he emailed Kenedi in October 2017.
He also told his colleagues.
The judge called this unreasonable, biased and “somewhat selfish”.
His concerns were “unduly raised to such a level that he began to have unfounded concerns for his safety.”
Watson discussed the personal alarms and Lindsay’s photo was handed over to the CAA reception so they could identify her.
Meanwhile, Lindsay grew angry, protesting the emails he said showed CAA staff discussing private personal details about her.
The strength of the sanctions contrasted with the subjective nature of the assessments.
“It seems likely that Dr Watson and Dr Kenedi were themselves subject to a confirmation bias with respect to Mr Lindsay. This led them to adopt several negative and unreasonable interpretations of Mr Lindsay’s actions and behaviors. “said the judge.
The CAA revoked the passenger ban in November 2018, although there had been no change in Lindsay’s personality, according to reports from another doctor.
“The only thing that seemed to change … was [the] (mis) interpretation of Mr. Lindsay’s conduct. “
Other pilots and the entire industry have told RNZ they are monitoring whether CAA is appealing the decision of its new chief executive.
Kenedi told RNZ he was unable to comment as it involved private health information and the CAA’s right to appeal.
Aviation New Zealand, which represents commercial operators, said the industry badly needed an independent tribunal to review cases like Lindsay’s.
For now, the only way to challenge the CAA was through the courts, said chief executive John Nicholson.
“Any action taken by the CAA can have an impact on a pilot’s career. It is therefore extremely important that what they do is open and transparent,” he said.
But the lawsuit was expensive and left “complex aviation issues” for non-experts to examine.
His organization made a submission to the new civil aviation bill that is before Parliament, for the select committee to review the legislation for a tribunal.
He was “disappointed that it’s not in the current bill,” Nicholson said.
CAA’s new chief executive, Keith Manch, said the decisions about Lindsay “clearly fell short of the standards we have committed to and that I expect from our regulatory decision-maker.”
But he was convinced that his decision-making processes around medical certification were now “robust”.
“The vast majority of our medical regulatory decisions are confirmed when reviewed,” Manch said in a statement to RNZ.
The case would form part of “the work we have underway with industry (through the Air Line Pilots’ Association) to examine ways to improve the regulatory framework and our certification practices. medical “.
RNZ approached Watson for comment.