Five New South Wales men have been arrested after allegedly orchestrating a “black flight” from Papua New Guinea to Australia with 52kg of methamphetamine on board when the plane stopped to refuel in rural Queensland.
The men – including a pilot and co-pilot – allegedly imported $15 million worth of methamphetamine during the international flight while flying at a low altitude to avoid detection.
Australian Federal Police allege once the flight landed in Queensland, the aircraft would be refuelled and flown to NSW.
The five men had allegedly been planning to illegally import the drugs from PNG. Picture: AFP
It was at this small airstrip in Monto, west of Bundaberg, that three of the men allegedly provided ground support for the flight.
Police allege the group included a Wilton man, 40, Newcastle man, 54, and a man of no fixed address, 40.
The three men had allegedly been in the region since February preparing for the flight.
Police allege that between March 20 and 21, the pilot, a 51-year-old Fairy Meadow man, and co-pilot, a 52-year-old Tahmoor man, flew a twin-engine Beechcraft light aircraft from Wilton, a rural area south west of Sydney, to the town of Bulolo in PNG, which is more than 250km northwest of Port Moresby.
The pilots had refuelled in Monto before continuing onto PNG.
Their movements were monitored by members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary from Lae in PNG.
It will be alleged the pilots collected 52kg of methamphetamine in PNG and then returned to the airstrip at Monto.
The men then allegedly flew back to Monto at an unauthorised low altitude with the aircraft’s transponder switched off during the return journey in an effort to avoid radar detection.
Five men were arrested after a plane was intercepted allegedly carrying 52kg of drugs. Picture: AFPPolice allege the drugs have a street value of $15 million. Picture: AFP
When police made the arrests on Tuesday, they allegedly found five duffel bags concealed in the plane, containing about 52kg methamphetamine.
Following the arrests, the AFP and NSW Police officers executed search warrants at four homes and businesses in Wilton and Tahmoor, the Wollongong suburb of Fairy Meadow and the Newcastle suburb of Wallsend.
During the warrants, police seized electronic devices, firearm parts, drug paraphernalia and documentation referencing aircraft parts and travel to PNG.
Police allege the crime syndicate also allegedly used encrypted phones and messaging systems to communicate with other members of the supply chain based offshore.
The plane was intercepted in Queensland after arriving from PNG. Picture: AFP
All five men were charged with importing a commercial quantity of methamphetamine, and face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.
The Wilton man was allegedly the principal facilitator of the importation, working on behalf of other people funding the importation and with access to the supply of drugs overseas.
It will be alleged he was the conduit to the people storing the drugs in PNG.
The Newcastle man allegedly helped transport a tank of aviation gas to central Queensland to re-fill the aircraft at the remote airstrip and also purchased and rented equipment for the importation.
The AFP will allege the third man, 40, had 17 mobile phone accounts in his name, enabling the syndicate to operate a system of burner phones to communicate with each other.
Four of the five men appeared before Bundaberg Magistrates Court on Wednesday on charges relating to their alleged involvement in the black flight.
The Newcastle man is due to appear in court on Thursday.
The five men each face a maximum lifetime in prison if found guilty. Picture: AFP
AFP Assistant Commissioner Eastern Command Stephen Dametto said the charges highlighted the lengths alleged criminal syndicates would go to in their bid to get illicit drugs to Australia.
“The way these criminal syndicates allegedly imported this methamphetamine to Australia was dangerous,” Assistant Commissioner Dametto said.
“These charges are extremely serious, but equally, allegedly flying an unregistered, low-level flight, across thousands of kilometres is dangerous.
“These men have not only allegedly imported a dangerous drug, but flying at a low altitude without proper monitoring systems poses a huge safety risk to other aircraft and to emergency services members in the event of an incident.
“Methamphetamine is a dangerous, illegal drug that causes so much harm to the community and first-line responders, such as paramedics, nurses and police.”
AFP worked with NSW Police, Queensland Police and PNG officers to intercept the plane. Picture: AFP
NSW Police Force’s State Crime Command Assistant Commissioner Michael Fitzgerald said the level of planning which this syndicate has undertaken has been under the microscope for months.
“Our detectives have working closely with our partner agencies since last year to ensure this supply chain was stopped before landing back in NSW,” Assistant Commissioner Fitzgerald said.
“The dangers methylamphetamine is presenting on our state’s streets is extremely concerning – it is destroying families and livelihoods.
“Through Strike Force Redground, we have thwarted a potential new route from establishing its roots in NSW, with all five accused men to appear before the courts.”
Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary Commissioner David Manning said transnational narcotics trade has no place in PNG.
“I look forward to continued support from our Pacific law enforcement partners so we can disrupt and dismantle these criminal syndicates that continue to exploit our Pacific region,” he said.
“Investigations such as this matter highlight the RPNGC commitment to keep PNG and our Pacific families free from the scourge of narcotics.”
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