For 45 passengers and three crew members aboard Continental Express Flight 3161, it was two hours and 15 minutes of nail-biting, prayer-filled tension. Just minutes after taking off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport Tuesday, the pilot announced their plane would be returning - for an emergency landing.
Adriana Gutierrez, 16, of Minneapolis, said passengers were obviously nervous.
"You could feel the tension on the plane," she said.
Continental and its partner ExpressJet Airlines Inc. described the incident as "a tire malfunction." As an army of emergency and medical personnel lifted heads skyward Tuesday, the plane made a picture-perfect landing at 6:20 p.m.-despite two ruined rear tires-and without any injuries to passengers or crew.
Houston firefighters at the scene called it "a photo landing." Relieved emergency personnel could be heard applauding over radio scanners.
What made the landing truly amazing was the fact that the plane had two flat tires, said Valerie Sorensen, 25, of St. Paul, Minn.
"The takeoff was real bumpy and jerky, more than usual, and I thought I heard a pop as soon as we got off the ground," said Sorensen, adding passengers were told only one tire had popped. "It wasn't until we landed that we knew two tires had blown out."
But knowing about one flat tire was enough to send shock waves of fear and anxiety through the cabin, she said.
Passengers said assurances from a cool-headed pilot and a flight attendant helped calm tensions aboard 3161 Tuesday.
The first hint of trouble came 15 minutes after an unusually rough takeoff when a flight attendant informed passengers that the plane would have to make an emergency landing because one of its tires had blown out, said Sorensen, who was making her way back home from Trinidad.
Gratitude to the pilot Alone at the front of the plane, Sorensen said she sat quietly and prayed for a safe landing. The landing, she said, ended up being smoother than the takeoff.
"It was like we were landing normally," Sorensen said. "You couldn't tell there were problems with the tire. I mean, the pilot did a great job. I'm just thankful we are all safe."
After exiting the plane, many expressed gratitude to the pilot and crew for their professionalism in what was fast becoming a dire situation.
Passengers were taken to the Continental's Presidents Club in Terminal C, where they were given food and drink before making new flight arrangements. Sorensen and Gutierrez took Flight 1556 to Minneapolis.
Watching and waiting As the plane circled the airport, emergency personnel prepared for the worst. The airport's control tower was in constant communication with the plane, said Roland Herwig, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The tower officials, he said, are responsible for coordinating efforts at the airport to accommodate an emergency landing. The pilot makes the final call on the choice of runway and approach for the landing.
"In an emergency, the flight controllers will do everything they can to accommodate the pilot," Herwig said.
Although the pilot of the 2-year-old ERJ 145 XR asked for permission to return to the airport immediately after takeoff, the plane remained in the air for more than two hours Tuesday.
The pilot made two fly-by runs at the airport northeast of Houston so that ground personnel could assess damage to the two rear tires.
Airport personnel viewed video from a news helicopter's zoom lens to take a closer look at the two tires on the left-rear landing gear.
The plane then remained in the air for an additional hour, in order to burn off some of its fuel, according to Continental Express spokeswoman Sarah Anthony.
More than 100 firefighters, emergency medical technicians and support personnel from the Houston Fire Department were on alert for the plane's landing.
"I would say that pilot did a good job of putting it on the ground. We were real pleased with the way things turned out," said District Fire Chief Jack Williams .
"We probably had close to 100 people there, and they were probably as ecstatic as the people on that plane were when it touched down."
Houston Airport System spokesman Rich Fernandez said that other runways remained in operation throughout the emergency.
"We were prepared for every eventuality, and it worked out well," Fernandez said.
ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said the incident would be investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and that representatives of Embraer, the plane's builder, and B.F. Goodrich, the tire manufacturer, were on their way to Houston to assist.
FAA personnel said Continental Airlines also would participate. The three crew members stayed in Houston for debriefing and met with employee assistance personnel, said Nicholas, who characterized them as "heroes."
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