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.