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‘Shooting flames’: Virgin passenger recounts engine fire

Passengers stranded in New Zealand after a plane engine burst into flames will return to Australia on new flights, as a flyer recounted the initial panic shortly after take-off.

(AAP Image/James Gourley)

(AAP Image/James Gourley)

Virgin Australia flight 148 bound for Melbourne from Queenstown in New Zealand was safely diverted to the southern city of Invercargill on Monday after a fire in one of its engines.

A bird strike is believed to have caused the plane’s right engine to burst into flames shortly after take-off, Virgin Australia chief operations officer Stuart Aggs said.

“At this time, we are not aware of any physical injuries to guests or crew,” Aggs said.

Passenger Michael Hayward who had a “front row seat” behind the engine said it was completely dark outside as the plane took off from the runway with mountains on either side.

“Within 10 seconds of going airborne, you hear just the loudest ‘bang’, golden lights filling within the cabin and a burst of flames off the right-hand engine,” Hayward told ABC radio.

An avid flyer, Mr Hayward said he was quite anxious, as were the other passengers with a few cries in the cabin as people realised something had gone wrong.

“I can see flames shooting out of (the engine) at regular intervals,” he said.

After getting the plane under control, the captain informed passengers the jet had hit a flock of birds and they were diverting north.

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“There was an initial worry, but it wasn’t long until people realised okay, it’s under control so just sit back, relax and whatever happens happens.”

Passengers were given accommodation in Invercargill overnight and have been transported back to Queenstown Airport where they are expected to be booked on other flights to Australia on Tuesday.

Queenstown, with a population of 53,000, is a popular tourist destination on New Zealand’s South Island, famous for skiing, adventure tourism and alpine vistas.

The rate of birds striking planes at New Zealand’s airports is about four in every 10,000 aircraft movements, NZ’s aviation regulator says on its website.

The consequences vary in severity depending on where the aircraft is hit, the size of the birds and the pilot’s reaction, the Civil Aviation Authority says.

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