A Swedish man who flew passenger jets in countries around Europe for more than a decade without a license was let off with a light fine by a Dutch court on Tuesday. A prosecutor paid tribute in court to his flying skills.
The court convicted Thomas Salme, 41, of flying without a license and fined him 2,000 euros ($2,700), about a third of the maximum penalty.
Presiding Judge Mathieu Kronenberg rejected prosecution demands for a suspended three-month jail sentence and a larger fine on forgery charges, saying the charge wasn't worded right.
Prosecutor Bote ter Steege said the case was unprecedented in the Netherlands, but also praised Salme's piloting ability.
"You'd think you could say that (Salme) endangered air traffic all those years, but the fact is that he flew for 13 years without any incidents."
Salme lives in Milan and did not show up for his hearing because he feared the media attention, his lawyer Martha Muntjewerf explained to the judge.
Acting on a tip from Swedish authorities, police arrested Salme at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in March in the cockpit of a Corendon Airlines Boeing 737 shortly before it was to depart from Amsterdam for Ankara, Turkey, carrying 101 passengers.
According to police, Salme became visibly nervous when officers asked for his license and tried to show them a different document. Then he asked to depart the plane quickly in order to minimize the disturbance.
On the loading bridge he stripped the wings off his uniform and confessed to police his license was fake. It was based on an outdated Swedish license and contained several spelling errors, Ter Steege said.
He said the airline industry operates on a basis of trust about pilots' licenses on a day-to-day basis.
Prosecution spokeswoman Natasja Keijzer said the justice ministry will carefully weigh whether to appeal, calling Tuesday's verdict "unsatisfactory for the people who were on the plane."
Ter Steege said Salme appeared to be a good pilot, passing simulator tests with high marks and once landing a plane with only one engine after striking a bird.
He did not give details of that incident.
"He could fly with the best of 'em," said defense lawyer Muntjewerf. "That's part of why it was so hard for him to stop."
She said Salme was unable to find other work and had financial difficulties due to a divorce, young children and an ailing father.
Ter Steege questioned Salme's honesty beyond the forged license, saying he had also falsified much of his resume. Salme also claimed he had originally been tricked into flying on a false license, which Ter Steege said was not credible.
Salme went to flight school in Sweden in the late 1980s, but never sought or received certification for jets or passenger planes. He apparently learned how to fly them on a simulator.
Salme flew for airlines in Britain, Italy and Belgium, logging thousands of hours of flying time. He joined Corendon in 2006.
Ter Steege said Salme flew for Italy's Air One and may have been dismissed after the airline found out he had a false license.
Corendon lawyer Benno Friedberg said he thought the ruling was "pretty mild for the companies that have been taken in."
He noted that Corendon has changed its vetting procedures for pilots.
Tuesday's ruling formally stripped Salme of the right to fly for a year — but left open the possibility he could one day apply for an actual license.
But Muntjewerf said he has no plans to fly again.
"He's had it," she said.