Virgin Australia flight makes emergency landing after 'bird strike' sparks fire

A suspected bird strike sparked a fire on a passenger plane shortly after take-off - forcing it to make an emergency landing.

The blaze shut down one engine of a Virgin Australia 737-800 flight from Queenstown in New Zealand to Melbourne in Australia, according to New Zealand's fire service.

The fire caused the flight to divert, and it landed safely at Invercargill Airport - around 120 miles (193km) south of Queenstown.

The incident may have been caused by "a possible bird strike", the airline's chief operations officer Stuart Aggs said in a statement.

He said he was not aware of any physical injuries to the 67 passengers or six crew members on board.

Passengers would be accommodated in Invercargill overnight and new flights would be arranged, he added.

Video footage taken by witnesses on the ground showed short bursts of flames coming from the plane after it took off from Queenstown Airport on Monday.

Fire and Emergency NZ (Fenz) said it received a report of a fire in an engine on a plane just after it had taken off from Queenstown.

"Air traffic control then advised Fenz it was diverting to Invercargill," a spokesperson told the New Zealand Herald.

"Something has happened to one engine. That engine has been shut down. They had an uneventful flight to Invercargill."

No further information about what happened at the time of the incident was known, said Catherine Nind, a spokesperson for Queenstown airport.

Plane 'spitting flames out the engine'

Michael Hayward, who was on the flight, said there were "cries of panic" from passengers.

"The plane starts taking off, wheels leave the runway, next thing you know - bang! Flashes come out of the side, right in the engine," he told ABC News Breakfast's Michael Roland.

"We've flown into [a group of birds], so all you hear is 'boom, boom, boom'."

He added: "Within seconds of leaving the ground, your plane's spitting flames out the engine... so, quite the dramatic take-off."

Another passenger said they had been told there had been a bird strike.

They wrote on the X social media platform: "Pilot confirmed us hitting several birds on the way out. We're now sitting on the Invercargill runway as the fire crews check for damage."

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Queenstown is a popular tourist destination on New Zealand's South Island, famous for skiing and adventure tourism.

The rate of birds striking planes at New Zealand's airports is about four in every 10,000 aircraft movements, the country'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.