NEWARK — As they approached Newark Liberty International Airport, passengers aboard Shuttle America Flight 5124 from Atlanta thought they were going to die.
“We just thought it was the end,” said Steve Parowski of Franklin Lakes. “I just sent a text to my sons letting them know that I loved them, and I hoped everything worked out.”
Things did work out as a commuter jet carrying 71 people made an emergency landing Monday night, after its front landing gear failed to deploy because of hydraulic problems, authorities said.
The pilot managed to guide the plane in for a safe landing with only its rear landing gear lowered. After the plane coasted to a stop, passengers were able to exit unharmed via an emergency slide.
The United Shuttle Air Express jet did not catch fire, and came to rest slumped forward, the underside of its nose resting on the pavement, its tail propped up by the rear landing gear, which had deployed properly.
“On approach, the flight crew was not able to confirm that the nose gear had deployed correctly,” said a statement by Indianapolis-based Shuttle America, which operates the shuttle on behalf of United Express.
“After receiving confirmation from Newark Air Traffic Control that the nose gear was not down, the crew declared an emergency,” the statement read.
Passengers who were interviewed later at the airport said the flight crew was “amazing” and professional, and the pilot did a great job keeping the plane steady on the runway and making a safe emergency landing.
“I’ve had rougher landings than that,” said Angela Nickerson, of Seattle, who had gone to Atlanta for a long weekend.
They waited several hours in the terminal, being interviewed by United representatives and waiting for their luggage.
Before attempting to land, Parowski said, the plane circled New York and did one flyby over Newark Airport. At that time, he said, passengers could see the emergency vehicles lined up on the runway.
On landing, the plane flew in with its nose up, Parowski said. At some point, the nose dropped and hit the runway, he said, and the plane filled with smoke and the smell of burning rubber.
Passengers then saw foam being applied to the plane, and in a few minutes they exit via an emergency chute.
Once on the ground, Parowski said, he called his sons, ages 16 and 19, and told them, “I landed and I’ve alive.”
Fire trucks, ambulances and police cars had scrambled to meet the plane, red lights blazing. The fire trucks were not needed and left the scene shortly after the landing at 6:22 p.m., authorities said.
The passengers, who were flying to Newark from Atlanta, were taken by bus to Terminal C from the spot on the tarmac where the fully loaded Embraer 170 came to rest.
The airport was shut down, disrupting dozens of departing and arriving flights, but it reopened shortly after 7 p.m.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to arrive at Newark Liberty to begin an investigation of the incident. An NTSB spokesman, Nicholas Worrell, could not confirm whether investigators were headed to the scene last night.
Vonetta Austin, 31, was waiting to fly to Chicago and then home to Houston after visiting her parents in Parsippany when the captain announced there had been a problem with another plane. Austin and fellow passengers were deplaned in Newark. Even so, she was happy no one was hurt on the United jet after imagining the worst.
“You just never know what is going to happen when you hear there is an emergency in the airport,” she said. “Everything goes through your mind.”
Newark Fire Department crews had been dispatched to the scene but found no smoke or fire onboard, said Capt. John Brown, a department spokesman.
Bob Herbst, a retired pilot with 38 years of experience flying commercial airliners, said the captain appeared to have done what was necessary under the circumstances.
“He did a very good job and what we’re trained to do, which you would hope and expect for an outcome,” said Herbst, an airline consultant.
“You typically land on those two back wheels,” Herbst said of the similarity between normal landings and last night’s. “Of all of the emergencies that we would deal with, that’s probably the choice that would be the easiest to deal with.”
In this type of case, he said, after the rear wheels touch down, the pilot holds back the yoke, or steering wheel, to keep the nose up as long as possible.
Once the plane slows to about 60 to 70 miles per hour, the nose will tilt down on its own, and the plane will skid to a halt in a couple of hundred yards.
“The nose gear really is not that big of a deal,” Herbst said. “You just hold it off as long as possible and when the aircraft is going slow enough, the nose will come down and rest on the pavement.”
By Star-Ledger Staff