A man who landed a helicopter on the roof of an Athlone shopping centre in 2007 after flying just 22 kms to collect a set of keys, was fined €5,000 in the District Court this week (December 14 ).
Sean O'Brien (50 ) of Ballycumber, Co Offaly, was convicted on 10 summonses relating to the incident at the Texas Centre, just 40m from Mary O’Rourke’s constituency office, on July 7, 2007, and was given a six-month suspended prison sentence in addition to the fine.
At his last court appearance on November 24, 2008, O’Brien was put on a bail bond for a year, with the singular condition that he did not fly in the ensuing 12 months.
In court this week, O’Brien claimed to have been applying “completely different” flying instructions acquired in the US, where he received his licence in 2006.
"You are telling me in Florida there are no regulations in relation to landing a helicopter on top of a supermarket?" asked Judge David Anderson.
Although there were 10 separate summonses brought by the Irish Aviation Authority, Judge Anderson said the one overriding charge was that of "dangerous and negligent" use of a helicopter.
O’Brien was piloting a €1.2m, Hughes 369HS (made famous on TV by Magnum PI ), a single-engine aircraft.
According to civil aviation rules, single engine craft are banned from flying into urban areas below 500m (1,500 feet ) because, in the case of a catastrophic engine failure, there is no built-in redundancy for escape.
Admitting he should not have landed in Athlone, or dropped below 1,500ft in a built-up area, Mr O'Brien said: “I would never do that again”.
He described his own actions as dangerous due to the lack of a designated landing area on the roof of the shopping centre.
“Mr O'Brien still doesn't understand why he shouldn't land on a supermarket,” said the judge.
“Had there been an accident, people could have been toasted in a serious fire,” he added.
“The defendant now displays no grasp whatsoever of the rules, common sense, that is where he has difficulty,” the judge said.
Solicitor Tom Madden said his client was a man of "no means" who did not own the helicopter and is now on disability. The remaining nine charges were taken into consideration.
At last year’s court appearance, the reason O’Brien gave for getting the new keys for the helicopter’s doors was that at a recent charity function to which O’Brien had brought it, someone had let themselves in and “stolen Big Tom’s mobile phone”.
A security guard who tried to wave away the craft from the roof on the day in question had his hand slightly injured by the effect the downdraft had on a large door in the staircase in which he tried to shelter.
O’Brien was summonsed for breaching rules on altitude, flying above a populated area, landing procedures, and other technical matters and claimed he had permission from both the owner of the shopping centre, Tom McNamara, and the centre’s manager to land on the building.
However, neither of these people turned up in court to corroborate his claims, whereas Mr Feeney, general manager of Parkrite Ltd, the company looking after the multi-storey car park in question, actually refuted this claim in his evidence.
“Parkrite was in no way approached to allow a landing on the roof,” he said.