The Qantas Flight That Got Stranded On An Air Base: The Complete Story

A Qantas Boeing 737-800 making a short-haul international flight between Melbourne, Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand, was forced to divert to an Air Force base on the weekend due to a “mechanical issue.” 

A Qantas flight to Wellington on Saturday was diverted to Ohakea Air Force Base. Photo: Qantas News Room.

QF171, the daily 09:10 departure from Melbourne was diverted to Ohakea Air Force Base approximately 140 kilometres north of Wellington on Saturday, November 16, 2019. According to New Zealand’s One News, the aircraft was on its final descent into Wellington when it pulled up and went back out over the sea. A passenger reported the aircraft then maintained both low speed and altitude.

Stuck flap causes flight to divert

It reportedly took Qantas crew half an hour to advise passengers of what was going on. One passenger, Annette Parkin, told One News;

“A flight attendant came over the intercom and said there was an engineering problem and a problem with the flaps and we couldn’t land at Wellington Airport.” 

The pilot came on soon after and advised passengers that the aircraft was diverting to Ohakea. One of the plane’s flaps was “stuck” and Wellington’s runway was too short for them to safely land. 

Passengers disembarking at Ohakea. Photo: Ryan Newington via Twitter

The flight would normally divert to Palmerston North but the weather there was inclement. QF171 landed safely at Ohakea Air Force Base just after 15:00 local time.

Problems on the ground at Ohakea

This is pretty much a textbook response by the pilots. But once on the ground, the problems only then started for the passengers on board. There are no customs or immigration facilities at Ohakea and the passengers spent over three hours on the plane while customs staff from Napier were bussed over.

Conditions on the plane were described as “sweltering”. Passengers were provided with drinks and while the crew were said to have done a good job in trying circumstances, passengers were left to “fend for themselves.”

The flight was close to full and initially crew would not open the doors to let in air, causing cabin conditions to become very uncomfortable. Ryan Newington, a passenger, told New Zealand’s Stuff that people were becoming visibly distressed and that it was very hot onboard.

When the forward door was eventually opened, babies and children were moved to the front of the aircraft. There were complaints about the lack of food onboard. In fairness to Qantas, this was scheduled to be a three and a half hour flight only.

No customs staff at Ohakea

Customs staff arrived around 19:00 local time at which point passengers were allowed to disembark and were processed through makeshift customs and immigration facilities. Terry Brown, a manager with New Zealand Customs told Newshub;

“We needed to divert staff from the Napier office to attend, so obviously there’s a timelapse before we can get there physically. We did need to preclear the passenger process. We have pretty advanced systems around the passengers that are on board the aircraft so we were able to do that.”

At approximately 20:45 passengers left for Wellington on buses, arriving close to 23:00, some eight hours behind schedule.

Qantas has apologised to their passengers but says it will always put safety first. The airline has advised they will be contacting passengers and offering them frequent flyer points as compensation. The plane was checked over by engineers and has since returned to service.