Airport provides update on likely cause of Virgin engine fire

Flight VA148 shortly after takeoff

Source: X/Vani Mehrotra

Queenstown Airport says bird remains were found at the far end of a runway where a Virgin Australia plane took off and suffered a mid-air engine fire on Monday.

An inspection of the New Zealand runway uncovered the avian evidence which supports the theory of a bird strike.

The Virgin Australia flight 148, bound for Melbourne, was forced to make an emergency landing when the right engine burst into flames and was shut down.

The engine had been spitting flames since takeoff on Monday night about 6pm, and was diverted to Invercargill where it landed about an hour later.

Passengers described hearing a bang before witnessing the blaze out the windows.

Queenstown Airport earlier said that an inspection of the airfield prior to the Boeing 737-800 jet taking off had not found any birds or flocks.

Passengers who were stranded in New Zealand will return to Australia on new flights.

The jet was carrying 67 passengers and six crew.

Passengers were accommodated in Invercargill overnight and then returned to Queenstown Airport, where they were expected to be booked on other flights to Australia on Tuesday.

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, 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.

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

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.

-with AAP

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