Captain thankful of co-pilot's skills during mid-air drama

Last updated 19:08 09/02/2008

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The captain of an Air National flight which a passenger allegedly attempted to hijack yesterday has paid tribute to the skills of his first officer in safely landing the plane while he grappled with the woman.

The Beechcraft 19-seater with seven passengers on board was travelling from Blenheim to Christchurch when a 33-year-old woman allegedly forced her way into the cockpit about 7.40am.

She demanded the plane be flown to Australia and allegedly fought off passengers and crew with a knife.

The flight became the subject of a full-scale emergency alert but landed safely in Christchurch at 8.06am.

None of the other passengers – four New Zealanders, an Australian and an Indian national – was hurt.

Asha Ali Abdille, a Somali national from Blenheim, faces charges of attempted hijacking, wounding, and injuring with intent to injure.

She appeared in Christchurch District Court this morning and was remanded in custody while a psychiatric report is prepared. She is due back in court on February 22.

Both pilots are today recuperating from their ordeal. The first officer has been treated for a stab wound to his foot and discharged from hospital.

The captain remains in Christchurch Hospital after undergoing surgery yesterday to repair injuries to both hands. His wife flew from their home in Nelson yesterday to be with him.

In a statement released today by Air National, the pilots acknowledged the intense interest in the life-threatening incident but pleaded for privacy.

Name suppression was this morning granted to the pilots and the passenger injured in the attack.

However, the airline said both men lived in Nelson and had around 6000 hours of flying experience each, including roles as training captains.

"As pilots, safety for our customers and crew is top priority and our intuition, training and experience led to a positive outcome," the pair said.

The captain said he wanted to publicly thank his first officer "for his good work in flying and landing the aircraft in what was a life threatening situation".

"His professionalism allowed me to focus on managing the overall situation and dealing with the offender."

He also thanked Air New Zealand, Air National and the Airline Pilots Association for their support.

"We also both appreciate the effectiveness and professionalism of air traffic control, aviation security, police, and airport emergency services."

The men said they were both looking forward to returning home.

Air National chief executive Jason Gray described the pilots' professionalism throughout the ordeal as "absolutely outstanding".

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"They put their own lives at risk without a second thought and I cannot thank them enough for getting the passengers and the aircraft to safety preventing any further injury."

He echoed the pilots' request for privacy, saying it was important they had time to recover away from the focus of the media.

Mr Gray said both pilots would return to Nelson when they were ready.

"Discussions about returning to work will not be rushed, with the captain needing some significant rehabilitation time to recover from the damage to his hands."

Air New Zealand and Air National plan to conduct a full investigation into the day's events in conjunction with the Civil Aviation Authority and the Aviation Security Service.

-NZPA

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