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Eric Shackle Writes: Pilots Warned: Beware Of Helium Sharks!

"Sharks are dangerous in the sea, but they're even more dangerous in the air,'' writes Eric Shackle.

The pilot of a passenger jet, thought to be an Air New Zealand flight, was on his descent to Christchurch International Airport on Boxing Day when he radioed ground control with an unlikely sighting -- a shark flying at several thousand feet above the sea.

The fish out of water was identified as a remote-controlled, helium-filled shark that had no doubt been a Christmas present to a youngster the previous day.

A spokeswoman for air traffic control company Airways, Monica Davis, said a pilot had reported the shark and its location about nine kilometres from the airport.

New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association president Glen Kenny said a helium-filled shark would not pose a serious risk if it was sucked into an aircraft engine.

"The engine probably wouldn't stop, but it would do a bit of damage," he said."Helium is an inert gas, so there's no issue in that regard. The biggest hazard would be startling the pilot."

Wayward party balloons had been an air-safety issue overseas, especially in the United States, Kenny said.

He had heard about the shark incident and had some experience with the toy, having bought his daughter the 91-centimetre clownfish version for Christmas.

The Air Swimmer sharks are 1.4m-long helium-filled balloons directed by a remote control.

They were "extremely popular" Christmas gifts, said the New Zealand online retailer The Warehouse, and reports of their escapes started almost as soon as presents were unwrapped.

One customer, Kim Clarke, said her inflatable fish did not even make it to gift-giving.

"I went to get it filled, got it to the car, made it home - but as I got [it] out of the car, it was very windy. I tried holding on but [it] was gone," Ms Clarke said.

Hamilton resident Brian Thompson lost his shark on Christmas Day, before his grandchildren had had a chance to play with it.

He inflated it in secret during the morning - but it floated through the kitchen and lounge, up a flight of stairs and across a bedroom before leaving through the bedroom's external door.

"They're cunning characters, these sharks," Mr Thompson said.

The four-foot (1.44-metre) long Air Swimmer toy has a radio receiver attached to its underside and can be operated by remote control over a range of 15metres. Each has a small battery which can last for two weeks.

The toy's Californian designer-developer, William Mark Corporation, warns that the shark is for "strictly indoor use only". But sharks can't read!





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