Plane makes ‘wheels-up’ emergency landing at Newcastle airport after circling for hours

A small plane has performed a successful emergency landing without its landing gear lowered at Newcastle airport in New South Wales.

The authorities who guided the aircraft down burst into applause as it safely landed on its belly on Monday afternoon.

The plane had been circling above Newcastle for almost four hours with three people onboard, including the pilot, after discovering the mechanical issue almost immediately after departing for a flight to Port Macquarie.

Authorities had been bracing for a fiery emergency, with more than a dozen crews including fire trucks, police, the State Emergency Service and ambulances at Newcastle airport. An operations room had been set up at a nearby defence base at Williamtown.

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Onlookers gathered at the airport with the crowd erupting in cheers as the plane landed on its belly without significant damage at about 12.20pm. The pilot and passengers walked away from the plane.

Pilot Peter Schott said the ordeal was just another day in the air.

“I learnt to fly before I could drive,” he said.

“Everything was thrown at us: bad weather, the storm, there was about 20 pelicans downwind ... so bird hazards”

Supt Wayne Humphrey said 53-year-old Schott, from Queensland, realised there was a mechanical issue after taking off and began circling while he tried to resolve it. The pilot later determined the “landing gear would not come back down”.

“He stayed here and burned off fuel,” Humphrey said of the plane’s time in the air above Newcastle. “I could hear him on the air. He sounded very calm to me.”

Humphrey said that after about 90 minutes of burning off fuel the pilot performed “a textbook wheels-up landing – which I was very happy to see”.

Neither the pilot nor his two passengers – a 60-year-old man and a 65-year-old woman – were injured.

Humphrey said that after landing, the two passengers “jumped in a car and drove home” to Tuggerawong, where they live, roughly an hour’s drive south of the airport.

Authorities in the operations room applauded when the plane landed. “We applauded, of course we did, nobody got hurt, we’re very happy. Everybody applauded,” Humphrey said.

Initial indications suggested the issue was a mechanical failure and that “nothing untoward” occurred, Humphrey said.

Newcastle airport was to remain closed for about 24 hours as recovery tasks were conducted.

The flight was the most-watched service on major flight tracking websites on Monday morning as observers across the globe followed developments.

The Beechcraft B200 Super King Air turboprop plane, which is normally configured to seat about 13 passengers, flies private charter routes out of Eastern Air Services’ base in Port Macquarie.

It departed Newcastle airport at about 8.30am on Monday but did not appear to fly towards Port Macquarie, immediately entering a circling holding pattern before emergency services were alerted at about 9.30am.

Newcastle airport shares runway facilities with the neighbouring Royal Australian Air Force base at Williamtown.

A defence spokesperson said “a civilian King Air aircraft reported in-flight technical issues to air traffic control at RAAF Base Williamtown”.

“Defence and emergency services at RAAF Base Williamtown are providing support to the aircraft,” the defence spokesperson said.

A NSW police spokesperson said authorities responded to reports of a plane with inoperative landing gear.

“About 9.30am today, emergency services were called to Newcastle airport following reports of an aircraft with mechanical issues,” NSW police said in a statement.

“Officers attached Port Stephens Hunter police district are on scene. No further details are known at this stage.”

While the plane was in the air, Doug Drury, a professor of aviation at Central Queensland University, said the pilot would probably be in constant contact with maintenance teams troubleshooting the problem.

“My guess would be it’s not so much burning off fuel as it is trying to figure out what the problem is and if there is anything they can do to fix it prior to having put it on the ground,” Drury said as the plane was circling.

“If you’re landing without your landing gear you’re going to do quite a bit of damage to the engines as well as the belly of the aircraft. I would imagine they would also attempt to do a grass landing if possible, but with all the rain we’ve experienced lately that might make it difficult.”

However, Drury said if there were fire crews on the ground waiting “I’d imagine they could also put in on a runway”.

“They would be in contact with a maintenance team to go through as many trials as they can, like pull this circuit breaker, pull this switch, try this, try that,” he said.