WARSAW, Poland (AP) - A Boeing airliner carrying 231 people from the U.S. landed on its belly Tuesday in Warsaw after its landing gear failed to open, triggering sparks and small fires. No one was hurt, but passengers described feeling severe stress as they prayed for a safe landing.
Capt. Tadeusz Wrona, who handled the descent so smoothly that many on board thought the Boeing 767 landed on its wheels, was instantly hailed 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 came 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 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 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 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.
By the time the plane landed, escorted by two 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.
"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."
Relatives of passengers waiting at the airport sought information as the emergency unfolded.
Joanna Dabrowska, 29, managed to speak to her mother-in-law, a passenger, via mobile phone after she evacuated the flight. "She was in shock, but she was fine," Dabrowska said.
Meanwhile, Polish officials and media declared the pilots and crew heroes. LOT said there were 11 crew and 220 passengers on the LO 016 flight.
LOT airlines president, Pirog, told reporters 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.
"I thank everyone with my whole heart in the name of Poland," Komorowski said.
Within hours, at least six Facebook fanpages 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 U.S. when he landed a crippled US Airways jet in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives.
Warsaw's Frederic Chopin International airport has been closed until 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Flights which had been scheduled to land in Warsaw have been diverted to Lodz, Gdansk and Krakow. The airport has two intersecting runways. The accident occurred 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 U.S. 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."