A large Russian satellite has showered the air space around two jet airliners flying near Antarctica en route between Australia and South America with blazing debris overnight as it fell from orbit half a day sooner than predicted.
Airways New Zealand which controls the long sub-polar air corridors confirms that it has filed a serious incident report.
A passenger count is not available, but the two jets, a LAN Chile A340 flying from Santiago to Sydney via Auckland and an Aerolineas Argentinas A340 flying the opposite direction to Buenos Aires, hold seats for more than 550 people in total.
Both flights have arrived safely.
According to an unofficial radio intercept the LAN Chile pilots reported flaming wreckage streaking past them on both sides of the jet at an estimated five nautical miles separation and causing sonic shockwaves heard and felt inside the cabin.
They were then at about 60 degrees south latitude, while the Argentine flight was a further 700 miles south, most likely over the edges of the ice continent.
A spokesman for Airways New Zealand said it had issued a general warning to aircraft that Russia had advised a large satellite was due to re-enter in the area between 10:30 and 12:30pm today NZ time.
However it fell from orbit at 10:30pm last night NZ time, right over both jets.
“We have filed a serious incident report to the various international agencies,” the spokesman said.
The far southern routes from Australia to South America via Auckland are by far the most remote trips made by scheduled carriers, and far further from help than the north polar routes which have access to a network of equipped emergency airports.
Anyone on either of the airplanes while space debris was falling? Know anyone who was? If you have pictures or reports, email [email protected]