Bird strike suspected as remains found

Bird remains were found at the end of Queenstown Airport’s runway, as more stories of horror emerge from passengers who were on a flight forced to make an emergency landing in Invercargill.

A Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand spokesman said yesterday the organisation was not opening an investigation into Virgin Australia flight VA148, which began shooting flames from one engine shortly after takeoff from Queenstown on Monday evening.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau was gathering further information before making a decision on whether to investigate the situation, he said.

The Melbourne-bound plane, a Boeing 737 according to flight trackers, landed safely at Invercargill Airport less than an hour after takeoff.

New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association president and pilot Andrew McKeen said early indications suggested a bird strike.

Neither the aircraft nor engine had been on fire, despite the flames emanating from the rear of an engine, he said.

"The damage caused by the bird strike would have disturbed the airflow through the engine, creating a compressor surge or stall.

"This results in excess fuel being burnt as it exits the engine and this is what was visible to those in the aircraft and on the ground," he said.

The risk of bird strikes was long-recognised, he said.

Training for such incidents was thorough, and the pilots would have had thorough training specifically related to Queenstown Airport.

Queenstown Airport confirmed yesterday an inspection after the flight departed found "some bird remains" at the far end of the runway, and the find was reported to Virgin Australia.

The Virgin Australia Boeing 737-8FE plane, hit by a suspected bird strike on Monday, sits at...
The Virgin Australia Boeing 737-8FE plane, hit by a suspected bird strike on Monday, sits at Invercargill Airport yesterday. PHOTO: TONI MCDONALD
Queenstown Airport chief executive Glenn Sowry has told the Otago Daily Times a bird strike test came back clear just minutes before the plane took off.

He said he could not yet confirm a bird strike occurred, but it was highly probable.

It is believed that a mallard duck flew into the plane’s right side engine after takeoff, only 100m-200m above ground level.

Bird strikes did occasionally occur at the airport, with two minor incidents last month.

"Queenstown Airport monitor statistics of bird strikes at the airport, and reported incidents of bird strike are pretty similar to other airports across the country."

Airport general manager of sustainability and corporate affairs Sara Irvine said it was "very rare" for a bird to actually be ingested by an engine, and bird strikes at the airport typically involved finches and plovers.

The Virgin Airlines plane is believed to be grounded in Invercargill at present, where engineers will be brought in to conduct a thorough investigation, using a fine camera inserted into the jet engine.

After spending the night in Invercargill at The Langlands Hotel, passengers on board the Virgin Airlines travelled via bus back to Queenstown Airport yesterday morning.

Mixed emotions were felt as passengers arrived, with some relieved to be back at the airport and heading home, while others were nervous about getting back on the plane.

One passenger on board was Valu Sala, originally from Invercargill but now living in Melbourne.

She admitted she was panicking during the flight, and could feel the heat of the flames from her seat.

Looked to the person she was sitting next to, she said "please, don’t tell me you’ll be the last person I see".

Despite her fear during the flight, she was impressed with the care passengers received, particularly after landing in Invercargill.

Wānaka resident Mitch Collett was also on board, and said he was a bit on edge — despite seeing flames, no-one really knew what was going on.

"I can imagine the pilot may have had sweaty palms, so props to him."

Prabh Preet Singh, of Melbourne, was supposed to be working in Melbourne yesterday so had mixed emotions about hopping on the flight back home.

"I am really ready to just get home, but I am nervous after the last attempt.

"Not knowing what was happening till about 30 minutes after the flames appeared made it very tense."

Cleon Cheah, of Singapore, who celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday night, said it was "one to remember".

He was in Queenstown to celebrate his birthday with his wife and parents.

"My mother is already a bit scared of flying, so the whole flight I was staying strong and comfort her, which distracted me from my own fear."

Another passenger who contacted the ODT said the flight was one of the scariest events she had ever been through.

"We were all scared to some degree. The pilot and crew handled everything well in my opinion. We’re all very lucky to be alive," she said.

By Fiona Ellis and Olivia Judd