Filmmaker appeals landmark drone crash sentence over future employment

An Auckland filmmaker slapped with a $1000 fine after his drone collided with a trainee paraglider – the first conviction of its kind in New Zealand – is appealing the sentence on the grounds it would affect his future job prospects.

But legal counsel for the Civil Aviation Authority claimed the drone pilot failed to “keep watch” of the airspace even before the collision, making it very serious offending.

Ashley Pitman was convicted of causing unnecessary endangerment and failing to keep clear of a manned aircraft at Karioitahi beach, on the border of Auckland and Waikato, in 2018.

But as a freelance filmmaker who wants to be “the next Taika Waititi”, Pitman’s lawyer argued he should be discharged without conviction so he does not have to disclose a conviction when signing new employment contracts.

The landmark decision made by Judge Mina Wharepouri in February is New Zealand’s first prosecution over a collision between a drone and manned aircraft.

The two charges were laid under the Civil Aviation Act 1990.

Today Pitman appealed the sentence at the High Court in Auckland before Justice Sally Fitzgerald.

“It’s a piece of filmmaking equipment which he has used and currently stands convicted of using carelessly,” said Pitman’s lawyer Michael Lloyd.

“If you are applying for a contract as a filmmaker and you have a conviction …. even if the work doesn’t involve using the equipment … it’s not a good look.”

Judge Wharepouri found Pitman had been overly reliant on the view from his drone’s camera and failed to maintain visual line of sight of the drone when he hit the paraglider about 100m above the ground.

The Civil Aviation Authority said at the time of the conviction it was a “deceptively dangerous” crash and “it was only down to sheer luck and the skill of the paraglider that there wasn’t a death that day”.

There was only one sign at the beach that mentioned paragliders could be in the area and there was no restricted fly zone, the courtroom heard.

“It was a Thursday on a remote beach. We’re not talking about … a highly populated area,” Lloyd said.

“He didn’t do a bunk. He went straight to the paraglider, genuinely concerned about him, gave him his details and those details CAA subsequently obtained.

“It’s easy for people to say they’re remorseful, but actions speak louder than words and he’s a decent young man.”

The conviction would greatly impact Pitman’s mental health and career, Lloyd said.

But Crown prosecutor Chris Macklin said it wasn’t a “freak accident”.

“He went to the beach, flew off without noticing air traffic close by, and on his second battery he then was unlucky enough to collide with a paraglider … the real nut of it is that failure to keep aware.”

His failure to be aware of his aircraft and situation he was flying it in meant the offending was serious, even before the collision, Macklin said.

“Because of failure to keep watch … the offending was very, very serious.”

The drone wasn’t being used by Pitman for filmmaking on the day of the collision, Macklin said.

The sentence may have some negative impact on career, but it is not disproportionate with the offending, said Macklin.

“There will be no black mark forever.”

Pitman has worked 10 years in the film industry and shot numerous short films.

His major achievement, The Beard Chronicles, has a “cult following”, said Lloyd.

He has finished 49 recent works, 34 per cent of which he filmed.

“Filming, using a camera is very much a part of what he does,” said Lloyd.

In his affidavit, Pitman said he would never use a drone again.

Using a drone isn’t – and hasn’t been – critical to his career, Justice Fitzgerald said.

Justice Fitzgerald has reserved her decision.

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