A landing gear malfunction on a packed JetBlue airliner turned a routine coast-to-coast flight into a three-hour ordeal for 145 passengers and crew members Wednesday as pilots repeatedly circled above Southern California before making an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
The plight of JetBlue Flight 292 became a national spectacle as television stations carried live images of the crippled jet. In a twist that some described as bizarre, passengers themselves avidly watched the newscasts on seatback screens.
"My friend said, 'Hey dude, something's wrong with our plane. We're on TV,' " recalled Jorge Santiago, 24, of El Monte, saying he woke from his slumber and realized the severity of the situation. "Honest to God, I thought it was a dream."
Zachary Mastoon, 27, a professional musician who was taking the flight back home to Brooklyn, said the broadcasts were "a little surreal."
"I thought how it must have been like on Sept. 11 watching on television and seeing the planes come toward the building," he said.
The in-flight broadcasts, however, were turned off before the final moments of the drama. For 15 tense seconds, as passengers braced themselves and prayed, the plane sped down the runway as pilot Scott Burke balanced it on its rear landing gear, holding the nose high to reduce pressure on the malfunctioning front wheel.
The aircraft then settled forward onto the nose wheel. Within moments, the front landing gear began smoking as the rubber tires burned to the rim. The wheel then exploded into a fiery display that burned until the aircraft slowed to a halt at 6:19 p.m.
As the plane came to rest, scores of fire and rescue vehicles sped toward it across the tarmac. But the passengers and crew emerged unhurt, some walking down the stairs waving to cameras and giving each other high-fives.
Aboard the plane, passengers first learned of the problem 10 to 15 minutes into the flight when Burke announced that the plane had a problem with its landing gear, said Mastoon. The pilot said he was in contact with ground crews at Long Beach Airport, where JetBlue has its regional hub, and in New York to try to determine what the problem was.
At that point, some people on the plane started to cry, but most stayed calm, Mastoon said. The crew tried to calm people by telling jokes.
Before the plane landed, everybody was told to put their heads down toward their laps and brace for landing. Passengers were shouting, "Brace, brace, brace."
But the landing actually turned out to be incredibly smooth, he said.
"Everyone applauded," Mastoon said. "There were tears of joy. Couples were hugging. There were pats on the back."
The drama also generated strong emotions on the ground. Some people curious about the plane's fate parked along the frontage roads of the LAX runway, hoping to witness the landing.
At one terminal, about 50 people watched the landing transfixed at the Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. restaurant, many of their own flights delayed by the problem.
They erupted in applause when the plane landed safely.
"It was amazing," shouted Dave Wales, a businessman from Phoenix.
"It got a little scary when it sparked and started to fire up," said another waiting passenger, Richard Smaltz, a photographer from New York. "Boy, those guys did a good job."
Family members of passengers raced to LAX to find out about their loved ones.
Richard Lund, 54, a photographer who lives in Van Nuys, didn't realize that the JetBlue plane he had heard about on the radio was his daughter's because it seemed to be heading into Long Beach, not away from it.
When he realized that his daughter was on the plane, he canceled his job in Costa Mesa and sped to the airport to watch the landing from Imperial Highway.
"If she is going to die in the next two minutes, I want to see that plane," Lund said.
When he heard on the radio that the plane had landed safely, "that's when I just lost it. And I sobbed," Lund said. "I welcomed her when she was born. This equals that. It's that same treasured moment."
Federal investigators late Friday were trying to determine the cause of the malfunction, though pilots said such mishaps happen from time to time. In June, a United Airlines commuter plane had to make an emergency landing at LAX after the crew noticed problems with the nose gear. The gear collapsed on landing, but no one was hurt.
In 1999, an Airbus A320 operated by America West made an emergency landing after its nose gear failed to deploy properly. As in the case of the JetBlue plane, the wheels were not aligned properly. No one was hurt.
Flight 292 lifted off from Bob Hope Airport in Burbank just after 3 p.m., bound for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Within minutes, however, pilots noticed problems. A landing gear indicator light remained on after takeoff, and the crew quickly realized the front landing gear would not retract.
Burke then flew south toward Long Beach Airport and contacted the tower for help.
"I heard the pilot asking for emergency equipment," said Stew Sawyer, who lives by Long Beach Airport and was monitoring the control tower radio.
"The pilot asked for a fly-by so the tower could check his landing gear. He flew by real low and the tower said, 'Your landing gear is 90 degrees the wrong way.' "
Burke was told to pull back up and to burn off all excess fuel before attempting an emergency landing. Some aircraft are capable of dumping fuel reserves over the ocean, but the Airbus A320 cannot do that. So, for the next few hours, the plane flew back and forth over the coast as the crew consulted JetBlue headquarters and formulated a plan.
At the same time, the severity of the situation began to grow on passengers, some of whom had settled into sleep after takeoff. JetBlue provides a small screen at each seat with a satellite feed that carries both Fox News and MSNBC, which gave many passengers the clearest indication of their predicament.
To shift as much weight as possible to the rear of the plane -- helping to keep the nose of the plane high during the emergency landing -- crew members asked passengers to move to different seats. Flight attendants instructed passengers on how to brace themselves by bending forward.
"Stewardesses were terrific," said passenger David Laventhol, a former publisher of The Times. "No one panicked, everyone was calm.... We didn't know if we were going to reach the ground."
Passenger Diane Hamilton, 32, of New Jersey said the pilot and attendants tried to prepare passengers for what was in store, and what the landing would be like.
They were told that the back of the plane would hit first, then the front, and that they might hear a loud boom.
Despite their growing anxiety, passengers tried to keep the mood light, Hamilton said. They took pictures and joked. They said Burke's calm demeanor did much to allay their fears. At one point, the pilot joked with a mechanic about what would happen after they landed.
"Do we have someone here who is media-savvy?" Burke asked. "I want to keep the media wolves off my back. I've got nothing to say."
On the ground, the families of passengers helplessly watched the scene unfold on television. Natalie Valdes, 34, had to explain to her children that their grandparents were on the flight. "I told them they were going to be fine," she said, "that we trusted in the Lord and the plane was going to land safely."
As the aircraft made an east-to-west approach toward the longest runway at LAX, 25L, it lumbered over the San Diego Freeway.
Traffic there slowed to a crawl as drivers peered into rear-view mirrors or pulled onto the shoulder where they craned their necks and shouted into cell phones.
Santiago said that as the runway came into view, he began praying. "Honest to God, I thought something bad was going to happen," he said.
Santiago described the prayer as "nothing too elaborate, just a quick shout, 'Help us get down.... For the people who don't believe, start believing.' "
He then braced himself for the landing by turning up the volume on his iPod to hip-hop music from Philadelphia's Jedi Mind Tricks.
As the aircraft sped past an army of fire and emergency trucks, passengers felt both fear and exhilaration, they said later. Some grew anxious as they smelled burning rubber and saw sparks and flames through the windows.
"When the back tire touched down, it was a surreal moment, then the front wheel touched down," said Laventhol. "In a way it was a rush that we all survived."
It was some minutes after the plane had landed that the door was opened and a ramp wheeled up so that passengers could leave.
One by one, passengers, many with wide grins, walked down the stairs, some clutching small children and infants. One man, clearly elated to be back on the ground, thrust his briefcase in the air in a sign of victory.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A dramatic three-hour journey ended happily for the 145 people on a JetBlue Airbus that developed landing gear problems on takeoff from Bob Hope Airport at 3:17 p.m. Here's how the emergency developed:
Sequence of events
1. Pilots see a landing gear warning light shortly after leaving for New York City.
2. The plane flies by Long Beach Airport, where visual inspection confirms that the forward landing gear is stuck with its wheels turned at about a 90-degree angle. The plane is diverted to LAX.
3. The Airbus A320, mechanically unable to dump fuel over the ocean, burns it off by flying for hours in a circuit above the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Santa Catalina Island and Newport Beach.
4. At 6:18 p.m., the rear landing gear touches down. About 15 seconds later, as the aircraft slows, the forward wheels touch down. The nose wheels skid, catch fire and are ground down by the friction. The plane lands safely.
Passenger capacity: 150
Cruising speed: 575 mph
Range: 3,000 to 3,500 miles
Length: 123 feet
Wingspan: 111 feet
Max. fuel capacity: 6,300 gal.
Source: Airliners.net, Airbus
Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago
Times staff writers Hector Becerra, Stephanie Chavez, Scott Collins, Jean Guccione, Greg Krikorian, Eric Malnic, Seema Mehta, Joel Rubin and Nancy Wride contributed to this report.