Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Passengers flee Great Barrier plane fire

Staff rushed to douse the blaze. Photo / Shyniese de la Mare
Staff rushed to douse the blaze. Photo / Shyniese de la Mare

A family's holiday turned to terror yesterday when the plane they were in caught fire while preparing to take off from Auckland Airport.

Taupo mum Kelly de la Mare knew something was wrong when the pilot of her Great Barrier Airlines flight turned to his passengers and yelled "get out".

De la Mare says the quick actions of the 26-year-old pilot, known only as David, helped save the lives of his 11 passengers after the plane, a 15-seat Britten-Norman Trislander, caught fire while taxiing yesterday morning.

No one was injured in the 8am fire, thought to have been caused when a brake jammed on one of the plane's wheels.

The experience was terrifying, de la Mare said.

The 41-year-old was travelling to Great Barrier Island for a fishing holiday with her partner Lawry Bidgood, daughter Shyniese, 16, and Lawry's daughter Sage, 11, when the drama began.

She saw flames and smoke rising outside her window, next to one of the plane's doors. "I just thought 'oh s***'. But before I had my seatbelt off the pilot was outside opening the door. He moved really quickly. People were shaking his hand afterwards, he did a fantastic job."

Bidgood, also a pilot who planned to fly the family to the island but changed his mind over worries about the weather, did not think passengers were in any danger but praised the pilot.

Although frightened - Shyniese said she was afraid the plane was going to blow up - passengers calmly left the plane before the smoke became too thick, de la Mare said.

Great Barrier Airlines ground staff used fire extinguishers before airport firefighters put out the fire.

All of the passengers happily boarded a new plane, with a new pilot, about an hour later, she said.

The airline has suffered a number of failures in recent years.

However, Great Barrier Airlines chief executive Mark Roberts said yesterday's fire was "totally unrelated" to the previous incidents.

"It's unfortunate but these sort of things do happen ... we will fully investigate and get to the bottom of this to ensure it doesn't happen again."

Labour Party transport safety spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway said it was important the CAA got to the bottom of any systemic issues with the airline.

"There's been a number of high-profile incidents lately and this has the potential to be damaging to our image as a tourist destination," he said.

Aviation expert Peter Clarke said Great Barrier Airlines managed well considering it operated in tough conditions.

"It's hard work running an airline with older, smaller aircraft, operating into small, dirt strips. Stones and bits and pieces can get wedged in [to the engine]," he added.

"The aircraft are mechanical, not turbine, and are harder to operate and maintain."

- additional reporting by Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

GREAT BARRIER MISHAPS

1998: The Civil Aviation Authority grounds the airline after four collisions or accidents in quick succession.

July 2009: An engine exploded and a propeller tore into the plane in flight.

September 2009: A plane crashed shortly after take-off. The pilot suffered leg injuries and passenger Jodee McKay suffered a broken pelvis and broken rib.

2011: A plane wound up nose-down in a garden at the end of the airstrip at Pauanui after it overshot the runway and crashed through the safety fence.

- Herald on Sunday

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