Airliner With Malfunction Lands Safely

By Sonya Geis and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 22, 2005

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 21 -- A crippled JetBlue airliner with its front landing gear stuck sideways made a successful emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport after circling the city for three hours. The tense landing -- with sparks and flames of the disintegrating front tires captured live by circling news helicopters -- looked picture perfect as the pilots brought the Airbus A-320 with 146 passengers and crew to a safe touchdown.

With the front landing gear of JetBlue Flight 292 down but twisted at a 90-degree angle, the pilots landed on the tarmac on the plane's rear landing gear and then gently lowered the nose. When the dual tires on the front landing gear hit the runway, they began to smoke, then erupted in sparks and flames, but quickly extinguished on their own as the plane rolled to a stop, surrounded by emergency rescue crews at 6:20 p.m. Pacific time.

Passengers exited the plane from the front door and walked down a ramp rolled out to the side of the jet. As the 140 passengers walked down the ramp, none appeared injured. Some waved at or shook hands with rescue workers. Others were immediately on their cellular phones. A fireman who carried a young boy put his helmet on his head. They were taken to the LAX terminal in buses from the tarmac.

A few hours later, the passengers began leaving LAX surrounded by police and reporters. Jim Chapman, 38, from Los Angeles, said: "I feel fine. The pilots did a great job. People were upset, but the pilots did a great job. The landing was a lot less impact than I expected."

The flight departed Burbank's Bob Hope Airport bound for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at 3:17 p.m. Pacific time, but pilots were alerted to the landing gear problem by a warning light on their console, which signaled that the gear was not retracting, according to a spokesman for the low-fare airline company.

Passenger Ashleigh Walker, 24, from Brooklyn, said, "There were some obviously upset, very crying women and children." Walker said that as the plane approached the runway, the flight attendants instructed passengers to "brace, brace, brace." But, "from inside the plane it was a very smooth landing. As we circled people got more upset. I was okay."

Martine Hughes, 26, from Los Angeles, was flying to a friend's wedding. She said the plane was just leaving the outskirts of the city when a pilot came on to tell them there was a problem with the landing gear and that they would be returning to Burbank to change planes.

"I'm a horrible, horrible flier and hadn't flown in four years," she said. "This was the first flight I was calm about getting on. I was kind of up and down during the flight. I feel good now. I feel really good now. The more information they gave us, the calmer it made me feel."

An Airbus spokesman said the plane did not have a manual mechanism to move the wheel into alignment. Aviation officials said the JetBlue plane's malfunction was unusual because normally pilots have the opposite challenge: A landing gear fails to drop properly and lock itself into position.

After the JetBlue pilots realized they had a problem with the landing gear, they turned south from Burbank to Long Beach airport and flew low so officials on the ground there could visually confirm that the gear was jammed sideways.

The aircraft spent the next three hours circling the city and the Pacific coast burning off fuel before landing. Safety experts said the JetBlue pilots executed the landing perfectly by touching down the main rear landing gear first and holding the nose up as long as possible. "You want to hold that nose up as long as humanly possible and drop it as slowly as possible," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. "You drop the nose and you pray the nose gear is going to hold up, which it did. Clearly this pilot did an extraordinary job."

NTSB officials said they would investigate the incident.

Goo reported from Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company