Suspended Kaikoura Pilot Reported by Police, Convicted for Breaching Civil Aviation Rules

Dave Armstrong Kaikoura

Dave Armstrong of Kaikoura Helicopters repeatedly flew while suspended

In a year where air disasters have been in the forefront of the New Zealand news we’re pleased to report that authorities are starting to clamp down on reckless activities and unlicensed pilots.

A Kaikoura helicopter pilot, unable to fly without medical clearance after he was grounded in 2012, and who repeatedly flew, has been fined $5,800.

Kaikoura helicopter pilot, Dave Armstrong, had shown reckless disregard for the safety of himself and others by flying on many occasions, flying on a suspended licence is a serious matter. His transgressions only came to light after he took a police search and rescue team to the air to bring home another person who’d been reckless with their personal safety and put others at risk – an injured hunter in remote and hostile terrain.

The incident occurred on April 5, 2014. According to, pilot David Armstrong, the director of Kaikoura Helicopters, rescued Hunter Scott Lee, who was lashed to a tree on the edge of a 150-foot bluff in a remote area of the Puhi Puhi Valley north of Kaikoura. Lee’s girlfriend had fallen down a shingle bank, and on his way down to her, he tripped and broke his leg on the tree that prevented him from going over the precipice. He fell nearly 45 feet.

According to Lee, his girlfriend then became the rescuer, and managed to reach him and tie him to the tree with her own clothing and their dog’s leash.

The first helicopter sent to conduct a rescue turned back due to low fuel, so Armstrong took off as an advisor to his copilot, knowing he was not legally able to fly. The copilot, however, was not able to fly the Robinson R44 to the spot where a doctor and an SAR team needed to be dropped, so he took the controls himself.

The SAR crew got Lee out after about six hours on the ledge.

Armstrong had been grounded because of a medical issue. At the time of the rescue, that revocation had been challenged and he was working to try to get the grounding lifted. He has been charged with  breaches of the Civil Aviation Act for performing search and rescue flights without a current medical licence.

Police formed SAR Team and reported Armstrong to the CAA

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority says the case of Dave Armstrong demonstrates the importance of civil aviation rules in maintaining the country’s aviation safety standards. In a press release on 14 December 2015 the CAA stated the police had made a complaint after their search and rescue team had been dropped off to stretcher-off Mr Lee.

Mr Armstrong, who in October this year pleaded guilty to two charges of operating an aircraft without a medical certificate and one charge of failing to accurately record flight details in a pilot’s log book, was convicted and sentenced today in the Christchurch District Court. He was convicted on both charges of not holding an appropriate medical certificate and fined a total of $5000 for those offences. He was not convicted for failing to record flight details, as this was an infringement offence, but was fined $800. He was ordered to pay court costs.

Director of Civil Aviation, Graeme Harris, says he acknowledges one of the four flights Mr Armstrong operated without a medical certificate significantly aided in Scott Lee’s rescue.

“However he also put at risk the lives of his co-pilot, as well as the Police and Search and Rescue teams who were his passengers during these flights,” he says.

“If we were only talking about the rescue of Scott Lee, if Mr Armstrong had advised all his passengers of his status before flying and had informed the CAA after the event then it is highly unlikely that a prosecution would have resulted in this instance.

Mr Armstrong chose not to do any of these things so prosecution was entirely appropriate.”

In August 2012, Mr Armstrong had his Class 1 and 2 medical certificates suspended. He was later that month disqualified from holding medical certificates under the Civil Aviation Act.

This was because medical expert opinion concluded the risk of him flying was too high.

“Medical certification is a cornerstone of our aviation system, and as such it is important that regardless of the circumstances, pilots ensure they are fit to fly at all times.

In repeatedly flying without medical certification and failing to log flight details, Mr Armstrong operated outside Civil Aviation Rules and the Civil Aviation Act, which exist to maintain safety. “If the Police had not become aware of the situation and reported it to the CAA Mr Armstrong could have continued to put his life and the lives of others at risk,” says Mr Harris.

We cannot turn a blind eye to pilots who break the rules. This would risk the lives of the thousands of New Zealanders and international visitors who expect pilots to be fit to fly.”

Mr Harris says there can be serious consequences if pilots without medical certification fly. He says Mr Armstrong’s guilty plea shows he is aware of the seriousness of his offending.

“It also sends a message that it is not acceptable for pilots to operate in this way.”

Other flights

kaikoura helicopters

A child wins the ‘prize’ of a flight with Dave Armstrong in April 2014

(Armstrong) assisted in another police search and rescue operation two weeks after finding Mr Lee, flying to look for three kayakers on the Clarence River who eventually turned up safe and well.

He said he decided to plead guilty to his charges – flying without a medical certificate and failing to record flight details in his log book – in order to get on with his life.

“I pleaded guilty because I did it, there’s no point in denying that,” he said. “I just want to get this whole thing behind me so I can move on with my life.” source

However, Armstrong appears not to have agreed with the law change that prevented him from flying, and was “a repeat offender who’d flown many times before” and “inaccurately” recorded flight details…

Former Aviation Industry Association president John Funnell – who has been in aviation for 49 years and has an MBE in recognition of his contribution to search and rescue – told Morning Report today that Mr Armstrong was “the only option left”.

He said the official rescue helicopter had tried for two hours to get to Mr Lee, but failed because of adverse conditions and that as a local pilot, Mr Armstrong knew the area well and was able to find an alternative route.

“He did save this man’s life, and it’s disappointing that the court didn’t see it that way, and it’s disappointing that Civil Aviation chose to lay charges.”

Mr Funnell conceded that Mr Armstrong had been a repeat offender and flown multiple times without a medical certificate, but the legislation was flawed after it was changed to add new restrictions in 1996…

(The judge) declined the discharge without conviction and fined the pilot nearly $6000 for including for flying without a medical certificate and inaccurately recording flight details. source

David Armstrong owns and operates Kaikoura Helicopters

Kaikoura Helicopters Ltd is owned and operated by Dave and Lee Armstrong. After 22 years of operation, Kaikoura Helicopters continues to grow and develop as a professional tourism enterprise. Our fleet consists of 3 Robinson R44’s (3 passengers) and 1 Bell Jet Ranger (4 passengers). Our team of 4 pilots and 2 sales staff are friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic to assist.

Kaikoura is world renowned for its whale watching – it also boasts some of the most spectacular scenery New Zealand has to offer. Helping you experience this is Kaikoura Helicopters, the most experienced aerial whale watching company in the world.
….We fly everyday on demand, except Christmas Day. We welcome families with small children, the elderly, people with disabilities and those who may suffer from sea – sickness. Children under the age of 3, fly for free.source


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