Warsaw: A Boeing airliner from the US carrying 231 people was forced to land on its belly in Warsaw after its landing gear failed to open, triggering sparks and small fires. No one was hurt, but some passengers sobbed as they prayed for a safe landing.
Capt Tadeusz Wrona, who handled the descent on Tuesday so smoothly that many on board thought the Boeing 767 had landed on its wheels, was instantly hailed as a hero in Poland and online, where within hours he was the focus of several Facebook fan pages.
The successful landing of the Polish LOT airlines flight, which was traveling from Newark, New Jersey, also was a huge relief for a country that has suffered multiple aviation disasters in recent years, including the April 2010 crash in Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.
"I was praying for the pilot not to lose control because we started to make circles over the airport. It was terrible," passenger Teresa Kowalik told reporters at the airport. "We owe everything to the pilot. He really did a great job."
LOT said the plane suffered "a central hydraulic system failure," indicating that the hydraulics used to extend the landing gear, or undercarriage, failed. The failure of an entire undercarriage was unprecedented for a Boeing 767 and highly unusual overall, according to aviation data and experts.
The pilots discovered there was a problem about half an hour after leaving Newark, said LOT president Marcin Pirog. They circled the plane above the airport for about one hour before descending, partly to keep trying to release the landing gear, and partly to use up fuel to lessen the risk of a blaze.
The pilot told passengers four hours into the flight that the plane faced technical problems, said a passenger who gave only her first name, Malgorzata.
"The pilot addressed us a number of times and said we should follow instructions. Later, a flight attendant said there might be a fire, and at that point people began to get nervous and uncertain," she said.
"I started to cry, and the men around me were also crying," said another passenger, Krystyna Dabrowska, 62. "I thought that was the end of me."
By the time the plane landed, escorted by two Polish F-16 fighter jets, its fuel tanks were nearly empty, LOT spokesman Leszek Chorzewski said.
A fire brigade laid out special flame retardant foam for the plane to land on. On landing, sparks flew from the engine and small fires erupted under the plane but were immediately put out by firefighters.
The landing itself was so smooth that "we all thought we had landed on wheels," said Andrzej Pinno, a 68-year-old passenger.
Passengers even applauded, but then grew alarmed when sparks and black smoke rose from the plane. "This is the moment where we realized this was not a normal landing," added Pinno.
Passengers were then evacuated using emergency slides. They were taken to a medical center where they were kept several hours before being released to anxious relatives gathered at the airport.
"We were waiting for a crash, and we waited and waited and waited - and thank God it never happened," said Greg Cohen, a passenger from Livingston, New Jersey. "It was a very lucky flight, a very, very great pilot. We are very fortunate."
Echoing the passengers, Polish officials and national media declared the pilots and rest of the crew heroes. LOT said there were 11 crew and 220 passengers on Flight LO 016.
LOT airlines president, Pirog, told reporters that Wrona and co-pilot Jerzy Szwartz carried out a "perfect emergency landing," which prevented anyone from being injured. "Unfortunately it rarely ends this way," Pirog said.
Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski congratulated and thanked the crew and emergency workers for ensuring no one was hurt. He said he planned to decorate the crew members with state honors.
"I thank everyone with my whole heart in the name of Poland," said Komorowski, who spoke briefly by phone with the pilot.
Within hours, at least six Facebook fan pages devoted to Capt. Wrona had appeared. On Twitter, admiration was profuse. One Tweeter insisted, "Give that pilot a medal!" Others drew comparisons to Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who became a national hero in the US when he landed a crippled US Airways jet in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives.
LOT, Poland's national flag carrier, said that Wrona was one of its most experienced pilots and had been flying Boeings for 20 years. He is also experienced in flying gliders, and some media reports suggested that may have helped him make such a successful emergency landing.
Andrzej Majchrzak, head of Wrona's glider club in the southwestern city of Leszno, said that glider pilots are specially trained to make delicate landings.
"The pilot's skills are of enormous importance ... It takes a very delicate approach to make a careful touchdown and avoid damaging the glider, which is a very delicate machine," Majchrzak said.
He said Wrona, a club member since 2001, is a "responsible pilot, not one who would take risks that could end in tragedy."
Officials said Warsaw's Frederic Chopin International Airport would remain closed until Thursday. Flights which had been scheduled to land in Warsaw have been diverted to Lodz, Gdansk and Krakow. The airport has two intersecting runways. The plane landed at the intersection, leaving both unusable temporarily.
The undercarriage of the Boeing 767 is made up of three parts, one under the nose and one below each of two wings. According to data from the Aviation Safety Network, there has never been such an incident involving the failure of the entire undercarriage on a Boeing 767.
Patrick Smith, a Boston-based pilot who flies the Boeing 767 for a major US airline, said something "very mysterious" must have occurred.
"Something pretty high up in the architecture of the landing system must have happened for all three gears not to come down," Smith said. "Something that was obviously common to all three gears."
He said, however, that he did not expect the incident to have any lasting impact on Boeing, or on LOT.
"It's a plane with a long, proven track record and an excellent safety record. And the same applies to LOT."
The landing occurred on All Saints' Day, a major holiday in largely Roman Catholic Poland when people visit the graveyards of departed loved ones and national heroes. Many Poles on Tuesday also paid homage to the 96 people who were killed in the plane crash in Russia last year, including the then president, Kaczynski , and dozens of other state officials.