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Baillieu drama at 6000 feet

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Paul Austin Melb Age


July 13, 2007


OPPOSITION Leader Ted Baillieu and two other senior Victorian Liberals have been involved in a frightening mid-air drama during a flight from Melbourne to inspect flood-ravaged East Gippsland.


The door on their light plane flew open at about 6000 feet as gusty winds buffeted the aircraft in foggy conditions.


One of the two pilots raced down the aisle and battled to close the door, which was banging on the fuselage of the 10-seater Piper Chieftain.


Mr Baillieu, who was sitting closest to the door, held onto pilot Scott Talman as he leaned out of the plane and tried to pull it closed.


Realising the wind was too strong, Mr Talman warned the passengers to tighten their seatbelts, rushed back to his seat and sent out a distress call so the twin-engine plane could make an emergency landing at Traralgon.


The three passengers  Mr Baillieu, his chief of staff Michael Kapel and Opposition emergency services spokesman Andrew McIntosh  and Mr Talman and co-pilot Connie Dunn endured freezing temperatures and high winds in the cabin during a 10-minute descent to Latrobe regional airport, with the door still open.


"Probably the biggest danger was that one of us could have been sucked out," Mr McIntosh said yesterday.


"It's not like a big jet that is pressurised  you are not flying at that level  but the speed and the wind could have easily dragged us out."


He said the most anxious moments were when the pilot was "fighting with the door".


"It was pretty brave of the pilot to do what he did," Mr McIntosh said.


"After we'd got back onto the ground, he said he'd never seen anything like that in all his years of flying."


Mr Baillieu said: "I've spent a fair bit of time in small planes over the years and been in some interesting situations before, but not quite as interesting as that one."


Asked how his wife and children had reacted when he told them what had happened, Mr Baillieu said: "They were happy that I was telling them about it rather than someone else."


He paid tribute to the "thorough professionalism" of the pilots, who were able to secure the door while the plane was on the runway at Traralgon before flying on to their destination, Bairnsdale.


Charter company DirectAir decommissioned the plane after it returned to Essendon Airport. An investigation found the door's safety latch was faulty.


DirectAir wrote to Mr Baillieu to apologise.


In a statement last night, managing director Mark McLaughlin said: "At no stage was Mr Baillieu or his two staff in any danger."


He said DirectAir was proud of its safety record. "It flies thousands of hours every year and this is the first time in its history that a door latch has come loose."


Mr Baillieu emphasised he was happy with the service and would gladly use the company again.


The Opposition Leader's dry sense of humour was on display during the incident, which happened last Saturday week.


As the door of the plane flew open, he told Mr Kapel and Mr McIntosh: "You'd better tell the pilot that we've lost the door."


After the pilot's frantic efforts to close the door failed, Mr Baillieu said: "I suppose this means we had better keep our seatbelts on."



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