Five NSW men charged after methamphetamine worth $15m allegedly found on ‘black flight’ from PNG

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A “black flight” allegedly carrying more than $15m worth of methamphetamine from Papua New Guinea has been halted by Australian federal police in rural Queensland allegedly on its way to New South Wales.

The light aircraft landed at an airstrip in the central Queensland town of Monto to refuel on Tuesday when officers swooped and made five arrests.

Five men from NSW, who police allege were part of an organised crime syndicate, were charged with importing a commercial quantity of methamphetamine. They face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Police allege two men had flown a twin-engine Beechcraft aircraft under the radar from a rural area south-west of Sydney on Monday to the PNG town of Bulolo, where they picked up 52kg of methamphetamine.

Two pilots and three other men who allegedly provided ground support were arrested on Tuesday in Monto, where police seized five duffle bags allegedly containing the drugs.

Kirsty Schofield, assistant commissioner of the AFP, told reporters in Sydney that police allege the men were attempting to establish a supply chain of illicit drugs into Australia through PNG.

“We will allege the man had been meticulously planning this operation for months,” Schofield said.

“What they did not know however is that law enforcement had been tracking these people for the same period of time.”

She said the investigation was a joint operation between the AFP, NSW police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

“Black flights” are designed to avoid detection by logging false flight plans or avoiding flight plans entirely, and flying at a low altitude or turning off flight monitoring systems, the AFP said.

“In this case, the aircraft was flying at very low altitude and had its transponder turned off. For obvious reasons this is a very dangerous venture for other aircraft in the air but also for the people on board themselves,” Schofield said.

The Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) provided support for the investigation on request from the AFP.

Police in PNG have told the AFP that a 42-year-old Chinese national is in custody and being questioned in relation to the matter, Schofield said.

“I look forward to continued support from our Pacific law enforcement partners so we can disrupt and dismantle these [alleged] criminal syndicates that continue to exploit our Pacific region,” the RPNGC commissioner, David Manning, said.

Michael Fitzgerald, NSW police assistant commissioner, said detectives had worked closely with partner agencies since last year on the investigation.

“The dangers methylamphetamine is presenting on our state’s streets is extremely concerning – it is destroying families and livelihoods,” Fitzgerald said.

Jennifer Hurst of the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission said the commission’s most recent drug-monitoring report showed “large law enforcement disruptions such as this one” are having a significant impact on the consumption of illicit drugs.

After the arrests, police also searched four homes and businesses in Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle, allegedly seizing electronic devices, firearm parts, drug paraphernalia and paperwork referencing aircraft parts and travel to PNG.

Four of the men faced Bundaberg magistrates court on Wednesday and one man was due to face court on Thursday, police said.