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NASA telescope plane SOFIA leaves Christchurch for final time & More New Zealand News

The high-tech NASA flying observatory, SOFIA, has taken off from Christchurch Airport for probably the last time.

The B747 lifted off New Zealand soil at midday on Thursday, eventually bound for California where it will be decommissioned and put into retirement.

Enthusiasts turned out to watch the final lift-off as it departed for Hawaii.

The decision to decommission the plane comes as newer, better technology continues to supersede the ageing aircraft.

SOFIA was also damaged in a storm shortly after it arrived in New Zealand in June.

“It’s always fun flying the jet, but it’s bittersweet leaving Christchurch,” chief pilot Andy ‘Jeeves’ Barry told 1News.

“Wishing we could stay longer, wishing we flew more and we were here on a more permanent basis but we’ve gotta go home and continue flying science back in California.”

The plane would spend winter months parked at Christchurch Airport where it would fly missions for up to 10 hours.

For the pilots and crew, connecting with the city of Christchurch was a special part of SOFIA’s many missions.

“Coming here every year has been really special, seeing the evolution and the tenacity of everything it’s been through has always been very special,” Barry said.

“There’s a lot of emotions running around here, not only with the US and German team with SOFIA but some of the locals too,” said Dean Neely, a NASA research pilot on SOFIA.

It had travelled to Christchurch seven times since 2013 during its life, where it would fly nightly missions.

SOFIA carries a 2.7m telescope into the stratosphere, allowing astronomers to view and study the solar system without interference from the earth’s atmosphere.

The plane is capable of flying above 39,000 feet, surpassing 99% of the Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere.

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