An armed woman who hijacked an Air New Zealand flight demanding the pilots take her to Australia tampered with the aircraft's controls, making it difficult for the pilots to land.
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The two Nelson-based pilots and a passenger were injured during the hijacking. At least one of the pilots and the female passenger were stabbed with a knife the woman was allegedly armed with.
The woman allegedly started her attack on the pilots 10 minutes after take-off from Blenheim. She was seated in 1A, directly behind the pilots.
One pilot was tonight in surgery for cuts to his hand.
Police arrested the woman, a 33-year-old Blenheim resident originally from Somalia, after she allegedly caused 20 minutes of mid-air terror, stabbing two pilots on a flight from Blenheim to Christchurch and threatening to blow up the plane.
The woman has been charged with hijacking a plane, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, as well as two counts of injuring and one of wounding, police said this afternoon.
Police and Air New Zealand have hailed the pilots as heroes for the way they handled the violent attack. The injured pair wrestled the armed woman to the ground after passengers disembarked from the plane.
The armed offenders squad then stormed the plane.
The Beechcraft 19-seater with two pilots and seven passengers aboard landed safely during a full emergency alert at 8.06am.
The injured woman passenger suffered a minor cut to her hand while trying to subdue the woman and was treated by ambulance staff.
None of the other passengers – four New Zealanders, an Australian and an Indian national – was hurt.
Police said a mayday call was received at 7.40am from an Air New Zealand flight, NZ2279, operated by Eagle Air travelling from Blenheim to Christchurch.
The pilots on board reported that a female passenger had attacked them in the cockpit, inflicting minor injuries. The injured pilots managed to land the aircraft safely at 8.06am.
The woman claimed to have two bombs on board.
All passengers safely disembarked upon landing.
Members of the Somali community say the woman at the centre of today's attack is an outsider who has moved around.
The woman has not been named by police but members of the Somali communities told NZPA she had lived in Blenheim, Christchurch, Nelson and Wellington.
Abdulkadir A Gudle, chairman of the Wellington Somali Community Association said she had lived in Wellington but he hadn't seen her for four years.
He believed she arrived in New Zealand in 1994 as a refugee.
He said she would not live with other Somali families. She lived more with "Kiwis", he said.
Radio New Zealand reported that a search of the plane, which was moved to a hangar at Christchurch Airport to allow the bomb squad to continue its search, had not turned up any explosives.
Superintendent Dave Cliff said the woman was in custody within five minutes of the plane landing. A knife was found on her and another on the tarmac.
Mr Cliff said one pilot received several cuts to his hand and another an injury to his foot. The injuries were not believed to be life threatening.
The woman was also treated for minor injuries to her hand at the scene.
The injured pilots were able to walk off the plane, but were taken to hospital. One has since been discharged.
Marlborough area police commander Inspector Steve Caldwell said Blenheim police were helping Christchurch police in making background inquiries about her.
John Hartevelt, a press.co.nz reporter at the scene, said there was chaos at the airport.
"It is fair to say it is pandemonium here. There are people everywhere, the flights are cancelled, but there's no panic. People are being really patient.''
Wayne Johnstone, a passenger on board another flight to Invercargill, said he was asked to get off his flight and he saw police surrounding the aircraft involved.
He said there was a sniper on the tarmac, and police rushed into the plane.
"I saw a dog go in, the passengers came out in a rush, then the woman came out, bundled to the ground and searched by police and taken away.''
Air traffic resumed at 11.10am, with airlines having a backlog of three hours of in- and out-bound flights to work through.
Earlier, an eyewitness told NZPA that traffic was banked up hundreds of metres.
"Passengers are getting out of their cars and walking up to their flights, and staff are walking through to the airport," the man, who did not want to be named, said.
AIR NZ: INCIDENT A 'ONE OFF'
Air New Zealand group general manager short haul airline Bruce Parton said the airline was providing specialist support to the pilots and seven passengers involved in the incident.
"Today's incident, although a one-off, has naturally given us cause to conduct a thorough review of our safety and security systems and processes on regional domestic flights.''
The flight was operated for Air New Zealand by Air National, the employer of the pilots.
Air National chief executive officer Jason Gray said his company was proud how its two pilots had handled an extremely difficult situation.
"They did an amazing job, which reflects their high level of training and professionalism. We are currently providing them and their families with all necessary support,'' said Mr Gray.
Passengers on domestic flights out of Blenheim are not subject to security checks.
Marlborough District Council support services manager Dean Heiford said that, like all domestic airports across New Zealand, the size of the planes and length of the flights from Blenheim dictated the security measures in place.
None of the airlines at Blenheim Airport require hand luggage to be security scanned.
Mr Heiford said security measures were dictated by the Civil Aviation Authority and the airlines, not the airport management.
He said the airport would implement any security measures which came out of a review following the incident.
"We want to make sure passengers are safe but with the least amount of inconvenience."
Propeller Cafe staff said the plane was due to leave at 7am but was twice delayed, apparently because of engine trouble.
Police and Transport Minister Annette King says she has asked NZ Police and the Aviation Security Service to provide her and the Minister for Transport Safety, Harry Duynhoven, with urgent reports.
- Stuff.co.nz, The Press, The Marlborough Express and NZPA
- © Fairfax NZ News
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