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Pilots are well-trained to operate out of Queenstown airport and people should not be alarmed by speculation over a Pacific Blue flight under investigation for breaching flight rules, the pilots' union says.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is investigating after the incident on June 22, in which a Sydney-bound flight took off outside approved flying times at the airport, potentially endangering 65 passengers and six crew.
Planes must depart no later than 30 minutes before twilight from the airport, which is surrounded by mountainous terrain and has no radar or runway lights.
Pacific Blue spokesman Phil Boeyen yesterday said the plane took off a few minutes later than regulations allowed.
"After take off the aircraft climbed at a safe and legal height in accordance with the weather conditions at the time and followed the prescribed visual departure procedure to continue its course to Sydney."
The airline had launched its own probe and the pilot and co-pilot had been stood down while the investigation was taking place.
One witness to the incident, Queenstown man Marty Black, said it was "virtually dark" when the plane took off into bad weather and a "complete white-out".
"It took off, it was airborne, and it basically dropped in height. It didn't climb at all," he said.
A passenger aboard the flight - former Invercargill woman Julia McClean, 23, who now lives in Sydney - said she feared the plane would crash during its turbulent ascent.
"I was so freaked out," she told the Otago Daily Times.
"I thought we were going to crash into the side of the mountain."
The weather was windy and rainy and passengers had been told it was "too rough to take off".
Passengers were later told it was likely they would stay the night in Queenstown, but the flight eventually took off "without any warning or update".
"I couldn't believe it was happening," Ms McClean said.
Airline Pilots' Association chief executive Rick Mirkin said speculation from witnesses was "not particularly helpful" while the incident was still under investigation.
"They don't understand the technical environment in which jet operations take place," he said.
"Almost every take off from Queenstown is done visually followed by entry into cloud very shortly thereafter. That is absolutely situation normal and what our pilots are trained to do.
"There should be no alarm at all about that aspect of it."
The airport was a "demanding environment" and the association would support upgrading the airport to make it suitable for night flights.
"But obviously it's got to be done in a measured and safe way, when you're talking about expanding operations into and out of a very challenging location," he said.
"Until such time that our association is satisfied that the aircraft, the airport and the regulatory environment are all equipped to deal with night operations, it just isn't going to happen."
Queenstown airport is planning to install runway lights later this year.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce yesterday said he had spoken to the CAA and was confident about safety at the airport.
Prime Minister John Key, who is also Tourism Minister, said it was "vitally important for New Zealand's reputation and image that the high standard of air safety is maintained in New Zealand on commercial flights".
The incident would be more damaging for New Zealand's image with tourists if no action had been taken, he said.
Destination Queenstown chief executive Tony Everitt said he did not think the incident would have any impact of tourism in the region, and he welcomed the investigation.
"We all want to know that the civil aviation system is in good condition and we'll be looking forward to seeing what the outcome of the investigation is," he said.