Light plane hijack puts Australia on terror alert

A man armed with a bayonet hijacked a light plane and forced its pilot to make a 90-minute flight across eastern Australia, prompting authorities to swing into anti-terror mode, officials said today.

A man armed with a bayonet hijacked a light plane and forced its pilot to make a 90-minute flight across eastern Australia, prompting authorities to swing into anti-terror mode, officials said today.

Kelly Witchard, the alleged hijacker, was arrested yesterday afternoon after the plane landed safely in the eastern town of Mackay.

The 28-year-old allegedly commandeered the plane, a six-seat Cessna, at an airfield north-east of the Queensland town of Rockhampton and ordered its pilot to fly about 185 miles to Mackay.

Federal authorities were alerted to the hijacking soon after the plane took off, a spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister John Anderson said today.

“The communication between the state and federal agencies worked well, but it started to become apparent fairly early that it was a criminal rather than a security problem,” said Paul Chamberlain.

The offices of the attorney general, security agencies, as well as the transport minister were alerted while the plane was still in the air, he said.

A senior police officer in Mackay said he had also feared an act of terrorism.

“In the back of my mind was overshooting the airport or coming into Mackay city,” Police Chief Superintendent Garry Harland said.

Witchard, of Rockhampton, appeared in Mackay Magistrates Court today. He faces nine charges including unlawful use of an aircraft. He was not required to enter a plea.

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