[Updated to include passenger testimonial, additional photographs]
Shortly before 11:00 this morning, an Air Vanuatu ATR-72 made an emergency landing in Port Vila. The aircraft, which had 39 passengers and 4 crew aboard, landed in a gentle tail wind. According to a statement issued by Air Vanuatu Ltd, the aircraft "was involved in a runway excursion. The incident occurred at the end of the runway on landing."
Neither the pilots nor the passengers on board sustained any injuries. Civil Aviation Authority Vanuatu is investigating the incident.
The aircraft was inbound to Port Vila from Tanna. It apparently suffered loss of power to one engine as it overflew the island of Erromango, about 20 minutes away from Bauerfield airport in Port Vila. Multiple sources told the Daily Post that there was smoke in the cabin when the aircraft landed.
Subsequent to the publication of this article, passenger Tanika Pratten insisted that "smoke was everywhere in the cabin for 20mins prior to us landing".
Passenger Janis Steele added some details on a Daily Post social media discussion board:
"The cabin was filled with smoke from a fire below and they cut off the starboard engine mid flight. No oxygen masks dropped and visibility in the cabin was only a couple of meters and breathing was difficult. The plane went off the runway during the emergency landing and cut through the front half of a [Unity Airlines] plane before we stopped. We then (elderly included) had to jump down from the cabin with about a meter and a half drop. So relieved that everyone appears to be physically OK."
An aviation expert told the Daily Post that ATR 72 aircraft don't have drop-down oxygen masks, because they are not designed to fly over 25,000 feet. At such altitudes, he explained, a person can continue to breathe for a few minutes. In these conditions, the pilot has ample time to reach a safer altitude, where masks are not necessary. Oxygen feeds exist for individuals, but a mask has to be attached manually.
All passengers were given an emergency medical assessment by first responders. ProMedical staff report no injuries, but confirmed that 13 people reported discomfort due to the smoke, and requested further medical assessment.
The plane landed and after it had run a significant distance, it veered to the left, into an area in which several small charter aircraft were parked. One plane belonging to Unity Airlines was a 'write off' according to its owner. The nose section of the plane was obliterated, and there is a visible dent in one engine enclosure.
Another aircraft, operated by Air Taxi, suffered significant damage to its tail section. The owner of the aircraft told the Daily Post that she had not been allowed to approach her aircraft to assess damage.
In an update received by the Daily Post shortly after 1:00 p.m. today, Air Vanuatu offered additional detail:
"Air Vanuatu has advised all domestic and international services are continuing after the re-opening of Bauerfield airport.
"Passengers booked to travel on domestic services are advised to reconfirm their flights with Air Vanuatu by calling 22000.
"Air Vanuatu management is working closely with authorities to investigate the runway excursion of one of their ATR-72 aircraft.
"Chief Executive Officer Derek Nice has spoken with passengers and the operating crew of the flight and praised the crew for their professionalism and skill which contributed to no injuries from the incident."
The Daily Post visited the emergency operations centre established by Airports Vanuatu Ltd, which operates Bauerfield airport. Staff refused to comment, except to confirm that an incident had occurred. They declined to confirm the number of aircraft involved or, curiously, whether airport operations were resuming. They referred the newspaper to Air Vanuatu for this last piece of information.
Air Vanuatu Ltd later confirmed that the airport had reopened, and the confirmed that one flight, from Port Vila to Nadi, was cancelled. All other flights were going ahead according to schedule, they said.
First responders spoke glowingly of the professionalism of the AVL fire crew. One person with professional firefighting experience told the Daily Post that the ground personnel acted with professionalism and at the highest standard.
The identity of the pilots on board the aircraft has not yet been released.