Anne Stokes was trying to catch up on some much-needed sleep aboard United Airlines’ Flight 1463 from Chicago to Orange County, Calif., late Sunday when she was awakened by a loud popping noise.
“I thought somebody had left the door open and flushed the toilet,” said Stokes, who lives in Fullerton, Calif. “The flight attendant was doing drink service, and she was right about to get to our row. She looked back, and all I saw was her face. Just sheer terror on her face.”
An emergency evacuation slide had inflated in-flight near the rear of the plane, forcing it to divert and land in Wichita at 10:31 p.m. No injuries were reported.
A little more than 12 hours later, the last of the roughly 95 passengers were finally in the air headed back to Santa Ana, Calif., on another flight Monday – Flight 2076.
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The original flight departed Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at 8:18 p.m. and was expected to arrive at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana in about three hours and 50 minutes, according to FlightAware. After the slide deployed in the Boeing 737-700, passenger Gamilah Mims said, the atmosphere in the plane was generally calm.
“Initially (the flight attendant) said, ‘We’re going down. We don’t know where, but somewhere,’ ” said Mims of Pasadena, Calif. “It was a bit frightening, but things seemed to level off after a bit.”
Because of the slide’s deployment, the plane rapidly decelerated and began losing altitude. The flight dropped to about 19,000 feet from 38,000 feet 10 minutes after the chute had deployed, according to FlightAware and other news services.
“I thought about starting to say my goodbyes and texting people,” said Susan Finkbeiner, a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. “That’s probably a little overdramatic.”
United flight attendants reportedly ran to the front of the plane to consult the pilot as passengers began snapping pictures and taking videos on their cellphones.
“I’ll never forget that flight attendant’s face,” said Stokes, who was seated toward the rear of the plane in Row 26. “That was just so scary.”
Passengers said they became concerned that when the slide deployed, it would take off a rear door to the plane in the process. Talking with Stokes after it landed, the pilot said it would not have opened the door because of the pressurization of the cabin, she said.
According to FlightAware, the plane was over the area around Pratt when it made a full turn to head to Wichita.
The pilot came on the intercom and announced he was going to land right away.
“He said, ‘I’ll figure out where,’ and a few minutes later he said, ‘We’re going to Wichita,’ ” said Michael Schroeder, who was sitting near the front of the plane.
After a bit of a rough landing – baggage and coffee trays that had been loosened by the slide’s inflation began tumbling into aisles, passengers said – the airline put up passengers for the night in a DoubleTree hotel nearby.
Though the diversion upset many passengers’ work plans Monday morning, they were generally in high spirits at Mid-Continent Airport.
“Luckily I brought a very thick book,” passenger Kate Devine said. “Hopefully the bar opens soon. I need one after all this.”
Longtime pilot Patrick Smith, host of the website AskThePilot.com and author of “Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel,” told the Associated Press “any sort of prank or intentional act” had been ruled out, since there is no button to release the slide.
But because there is no way to open a door while a plane is in flight, he suspects a mechanical malfunction caused the latest incident.
Smith said the slide inflating in such a small area could be harmful to anyone in the immediate vicinity but that the slide does not inflate with enough force to “push through the side of the cabin.”
The story was picked up by CNN and “Good Morning America,” among other national media outlets, on Monday morning.
“I said, ‘This’ll never happen again in your life,’ ” Julie Johnson told her daughter Jadyn Johnson, 7, who composed her own theory explaining why the slide deployed.
“When the plane tipped over a bit, the luggage went and it tipped inside and it, like, banged on the wall and it pushed the emergency slide out,” Jadyn, a first-grader, said while admitting that was she was “a little” scared but not too much.
Passenger Jeff Samson said he thought United handled the situation “quite well” and was considerate of its passengers.
“It’s kind of a little kink in the plans, but it’s all right,” Samson said. “Nobody lost their wits, which happens during turbulence sometimes.
United spokeswoman Christen David said the airline is working to fix what went wrong. Federal aviation officials are investigating.
“Our maintenance team will inspect the aircraft to determine what happened,” David said in an e-mail.
This is not the first incident of an emergency chute deploying midflight. A JetBlue flight headed to Boston from Fort Myers, Fla., was forced to land in Orlando, Fla., after its slide deployed in the front galley of the cabin. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign plane had to land at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport after its emergency chute deployed.
The replacement flight – another Boeing 737 – taxied away from the terminal at Mid-Continent at about 11:15 a.m. Monday and landed shortly after noon Pacific time.
United representatives provided complimentary bagels and coffee to the passengers of Flight 2076, and after a brief bagel logistical snafu – “You think they’d rather have bagels or be back to Orange County on time?” one United representative said to another – the plane was in the air.
It’s an anomaly for Mid-Continent – a flight from Wichita to Orange County.
“As long as we get home, that’s all that matters,” said Julie Johnson of Aliso Viejo, Calif. “It was not our week to be traveling, I guess.”
Contributing: Jean Hays of The Eagle