An American Airlines flight from Sea-Tac to Dallas left something critical behind when it took off early Wednesday morning.
Not luggage or a tardy passenger, but one of its two nose landing-gear wheels.
Neither the Boeing 757's pilots nor its passengers were aware of the incident until after the flight landed safely at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport nearly four hours after the 5:56 a.m. takeoff.
Flight 1276 stopped short of the gate after ground personnel noticed the landing gear beneath the aircraft's nose was minus a wheel, and notified the captain. "The passengers and the crew had been totally unaware until then that anything was wrong," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith.
The 145 passengers were evacuated using a portable set of stairs. No one suffered an injury during what appeared to be an otherwise normal takeoff and landing.
The first clue that something was abnormal came about 7:30 a.m. when control tower personnel at Sea-Tac noticed some debris on the threshold of the eastern-most runway, 16 Left. The airport sent workers to check out the situation, said Sea-Tac spokesman Bob Parker. They found a metallic aircraft part that wasn't immediately identifiable.
Airport crews checked Sea-Tac's runways for further debris but found none. The airport notified the airlines that use the airport that its workers had found the debris.
When American Airlines discovered the wheel missing in Dallas about 9:45 a.m. Pacific time, the airline notified Sea-Tac, which sent workers to the runway area to search again. They found the missing wheel behind a sign near a taxiway midway down the 11,910-foot runway. And they discovered what appeared to be a circular set of bearings near a taxiway on the west side of the airport. The airport has turned those parts over to American Airlines, said Parker.
"Losing a wheel is an extremely rare occurrence," said American's Smith. "But it's not unprecedented."
The aircraft's nose wheels bear relatively less weight than the main landing gear beneath the wings. They are used primarily for steering.
When airliners land, they approach the runway nose high. The beefy main landing gear contacts the runway first, absorbing most of the shock of the landing, then the captain lowers the nose, and the nose gear contacts the runway.
American Airlines took the plane out of service to check the nose gear for damage and to investigate what caused the wheel to fall off, Smith said.
The airline notified the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board of the incident, but the agencies decided to allow the airline to conduct its own investigation because there was no apparent damage to the aircraft, its passengers or the six-member crew, Smith said.
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