'Large bullseye on my back' after row with IAA, claims pilot in court

'Large bullseye on my back' after row with IAA, claims pilot in court
Captain Padraig Higgins

An Aer Lingus pilot suing over defamatory emails about him sent by the Irish Aviation Authority told the High Court there was "a large bullseye on my back" after he came into conflict with the IAA about its approach to validating licences for pilots using two-seat microlight aircraft.

Captain Padraig Higgins of Enfield, Co Meath, was giving evidence in a hearing before a judge and jury to determine what damages he should receive for the defamation, for which the IAA has already apologised.

The case arose after Captain Higgins was involved in an incident in April 2013 when his single-engine microlight aircraft, which he uses in his spare time, had to make an emergency landing on rough ground near Swansea, Wales. It landed safely but the nose-wheel and propeller were damaged when it hit a rock.

He had ensured before leaving that all his papers and licence allowing him to fly in UK airspace were in order.

In June 2013, the first of three defamatory emails was sent by John Steel, IAA manager of general aviation standards, to three IAA colleagues and to the UK's Civil Aviation Authority.

Even though the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had found Captain Higgins had been properly licensed and had no case to answer, the last IAA email spoke of there being still " a couple of issues" and Captain Higgins and his fellow pilot "will not be getting away 'scot free'".

In evidence on the second day of the damages assessment hearing, Captain Higgins, a former vice-chair of the Irish Microlight Association, said in that role he came into conflict with the IAA over efforts by the association to achieve better safety and training standards for its members.

It culminated in a picket outside IAA headquarters by association members which got TV coverage and was at a time when international auditors were in the building, he said.

This resulted in a "bit of traction" for the association and led to the granting of 40 Irish licences and the recognition of 38 UK licences here.

However, problems arose in 2011 over the instructors to be used as part of the two-year validation process to allow pilots continue to hold licences. The microlight association proposed two highly qualified UK instructors but the IAA wanted its own.

Captain Higgins said the first time those IAA instructors got into an aircraft, there was an accident which left one man with a brain injury and the other using a walking frame.

When the IAA insisted it would continue to appoint the instructors, Captain Higgins said the association threatened an injunction and he (Captain Higgins) said he would hold them responsible for any further accidents and send the files on any such accidents to the next of kin.

As a result of that, "I knew I had a large bullseye on my back," he said.

Around the time the UK CAA closed the inquiry into the Swansea case, Captain Higgins was hearing rumours and told to "watch my back, I was in trouble with the IAA.".

He sought data held on him by the IAA and was given just one "pretty innocuous" email. The UK CAA however provided him with 100 pages including the defamatory emails.

He said he could see from this the IAA was trying to take his career and his livelihood off him.

He was devastated that he had been accused of what was a criminal offence and of putting his own life and a passenger’s life in danger when there was no basis to the allegation at all.

Earlier, Mr Justice Bernard Barton told the jury an article by journalist John Mulligan about the first day of the case on Independent.ie stated the IAA had agreed to pay "substantial" damages to Captain Higgins.

The judge said that was "outrageously wrong”. What was said in the apology was the IAA had agreed to “pay Captain Higgins damages”. However, the jury was to determine those damages, he said.

The judge said he did not have an explanation from the journalist or whether he was in court or got his information from someone.

The headline is an outrage and does not reflect what happened in court yesterday and I make no apology how annoyed I am about it.

What was published did not reflect what the parties agreed, he said. As a result the court had to intervene and the jury would get to see the correct wording of that apology and the history of how it came about, he said.

The case continues.

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