Patricia Corbett knew the flight from Dallas-Fort Worth wasn’t going well from the beginning.
“When we were taking off, we smelled burning rubber,” the Pleasant Gap resident said. “When we thrust up, there was this tremendous thud and the whole plane shook.”
That was the start of hours in the sky, preparing for the worst after American Airlines Flight 1654 experienced a series of problems Monday.
Corbett and her husband, Mike Hamel, were on their way back from Hamel’s father’s memorial service in Tucson when they changed planes at DFW. After the rocky take-off, they were told that the tread had burned off of one of the wheels, like a shredded tire from a tractor-trailer on the interstate.
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But unlike a truck, the tread didn’t just lay on the side of the road. According to Corbett, it hit one of the plane’s flaps.
The pilot then did a low pass by the control tower to have crews assess the damage.
“We were waiting on pins and needles. What were they going to say?” Corbett said.
The FAA confirmed Tuesday that the flight had experienced “a landing gear issue” that required an emergency landing, although spokesman Lynn Lunsford said there was no visual damage that could be identified in the fly-by.
However, landing a plane that has just taken off to fly halfway across the United States, with the possibility of bad landing gear, isn’t as easy as pulling over to change a flat.
The FAA said the plane was an MD 82. According to the manufacturer specifications, the fuel capacity for that model is up to 5,840 gallons.
“The pilot held for over an hour to burn fuel,” Lunsford said, though Corbett said it was more like two hours.
Corbett said the hardest part was knowing something was happening but not having details. Phone and Internet access was restricted, she said, because the situation was breaking news on the ground.
“They didn’t want people to panic, but people were already panicking,” she said. “It was a harrowing feeling.”
Eventually, the pilot was able to bring the plane to the ground, but not until passengers had repeatedly practiced emergency-landing scenarios in the air, assuming crash positions and removing sharp objects or things that could become dangerous on impact.
It was when flight attendants started collecting those stray personal items and putting them in plastic bags that the situation became very real, Corbett said.
“The worst is when (the pilot) said we were going in for the landing,” she said. “He told us, ‘We are in an American-made plane and we practice this in simulation all the time.’ They were so professional but you could tell this was a first for them.”
Corbett kept her phone in airplane mode, but did send two text messages to her children. The first gave a brief explanation that they would be delayed getting home. The second was a simple “I love you.” The texts wouldn’t send until later. Ultimately, only one, the love message, went through.
It was a rough landing, “a little unnerving,” but the plane came down safely. The problems didn’t end there, though.
Corbett said there were problems with using the normal doors and stairs. Lunsford confirmed that, saying that crews attributed it to possible flap damage. Passengers ended up being hurried down a narrow set of stairs at the tail of the plane, something many didn’t know even existed.
“There was a concern about sparks, but they didn’t tell us that until later,” Corbett said.
“The FAA is looking into the incident, as we do with all emergencies,” Lunsford said.
American Airlines did not return calls about the situation, but Corbett said passengers were given $350 vouchers for future travel and put aboard a different plane to continue the journey to Baltimore. Some, like the woman next to Corbett, opted to cancel their travel plans altogether.
On the next flight, however, many showed a sense of humor despite everything. Corbett said the new pilot drew lots of laughter as he told passengers to direct their attention to the flight attendants for directions in the unlikely event of an emergency.
Corbett and Hamel didn’t make it back to Centre County until about 6 a.m. Tuesday. It was Corbett’s birthday, and she said the whole experience made her realize how nice it is to get one year older.
Her birthday plans do not involve flying. She does intend to use that American Airlines voucher but says it will probably be a while before she makes any reservations.