Virgin Blue plane's wheel falls off before take-off

A wheel fell off the front of a Virgin Blue aircraft and rolled down the tarmac at Melbourne Airport at the weekend, moments before the plane was due to take off.

Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association national secretary Stephen Purvinas said a corroded front axle led to one of the Boeing 737's two front wheels becoming loose about 8am on Saturday.

"A wheel came off the nose of the aircraft. We believe it was noticed by another aircraft in the vicinity who radioed through and told the Virgin driver to get his aircraft back to the base to get it checked properly," Mr Purvinas told Radio 3AW.

Mr Purvinas said the incident could have endangered passengers if it had not been noticed.

"If the aircraft had tried to take off and the corrosion was on both sides of the nose of the aircraft, the landing gear would have dug into the runway and who knows what could have happened," he said.

"Similarly, on landing, if the axle had collapsed, it certainly could have been disastrous."

The 132 passengers on the Boeing 737, which was due to fly to Sydney, were transferred to other flights.

A Virgin Blue spokeswoman said it was believed that axle corrosion was to blame for the right nose wheel falling off, but this was yet to be confirmed.

She said it was a rare incident for Virgin Blue but initial inquiries with Boeing had indicated that it had happened before to other airlines. The spokeswoman likened it to a tyre bursting.

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"We are satisfied that there was no risk to safety and we took immediate steps to return the aircraft to the terminal and commenced investigations with the safety authorities and Boeing as to why this incident occurred," she said.

Virgin Blue and the Air Transport Safety Bureau are undertaking an investigation into what happened.

All other Boeing 737s in the airline’s fleet with a similar flight history have been checked by Virgin Blue engineers and given the all-clear. The landing gear on the affected plane, which last underwent a heavy maintenance check eight months ago, has been replaced.

"Virgin Blue complies fully with all required safety and maintenance checks and standards and has every confidence in its maintenance program and procedures and engineers," the spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, the airline has announced its maintenance centre will be based in Melbourne and create 249 new jobs over the next five years.

The airline is also seeking $231.4 million of new capital through an equity raising, as it announced the departure of its chief executive and forecast a net loss for 2008/09.

"The operating environment over the last 12 months has been the most challenging in the airline's history," Virgin Blue said in a statement.

Australia's second biggest carrier said the proceeds from the share sale would be used to strengthen its balance sheet, improve liquidity and increase its financial flexibility to position the business for when markets recover.

- with AAP

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