Friday 9 December 2016

On a wing... and a prayer

Gemma O'Doherty

Published 13/11/2011 | 06:00

A Boeing 767 of Polish LOT airlines makes an emergency landing at Warsaw airport
A Boeing 767 of Polish LOT airlines makes an emergency landing at Warsaw airport

Did Pope John Paul II save the plane that spectacularly belly-flopped on to a runway at Warsaw Airport last week? A Polish monk on board seems to thinks so.

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When the landing gear failed to deploy on the LOT Airlines flight, and the pilot warned passengers to prepare for the worst, Fr Piotr Chyla spent the final minutes of the near-doomed flight clutching a tiny lock of hair from the head of the beatified pontiff while whispering final absolution to the 231 people on board.

It's a comforting theory and one which has led to a resurgence in devotion to Karol Wojtyla in his native Poland, but aviation experts are not wholly convinced the outcome was heaven-sent.

They say the plane's perfect landing, which has been dubbed the most extraordinary emergency descent in aviation history, was down to a combination of three things: sheer old-fashioned pilot skill, an ultra-professional crew and a cabin full of calm, well-behaved passengers.

As the Boeing 767 flying from Newark airport began its descent on November 2, Captain Tadeusz Wrona tried the landing gear a number of times and realised it wouldn't kick in.

He had about an hour and a half to deal with the crisis but, in his mind, he must have known it was almost inevitable that his packed plane would break up on impact.

The veteran pilot, who has landed Boeing 767s about 500 times, notified the airport to prepare for a crash landing and told cabin crew to run through emergency procedures with passengers and teach them how to adopt the brace position and prepare for immediate evacuation on landing.

The terrified passengers listened intently, then prayed quietly and wrote messages of love on their mobile phones to those they thought they would be leaving behind.

As the plane approached Warsaw, Captain Wrona, whose passion for gliding is thought to have played a role in helping him land a plane without wheels, circled the city to burn off excess fuel.

Then, two minutes before landing, he took manual control, delicately attempting to rest the plane on three points -- its two engines and the rear of the fuselage.

An eerie silence filled the plane as it sped towards the ground.

Skidding to a halt along the tarmac, its engine noise seemed quieter than in a normal touchdown, which surprisedWrona. Then, just over a minute later, the purser reported that the plane was empty and not one of the passengers had been injured. The Polish airline is still investigating what went wrong with their 14-year-old plane, one of the youngest in their fleet. An undercarriage failure of such magnitude is unprecedented for a Boeing 767.

As for Captain Wrona, he's been hailed as a hero in his homeland, with more than 33,000 followers on the dozens of Facebook pages set up in his honour. Some of them bear the slogan 'fly like an eagle and land like a crow'.

In Polish, the word Wrona means crow.

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