WARSAW, Poland — A Boeing airliner carrying 231 people was forced to land on its belly Tuesday in Warsaw after its landing gear failed to open, triggering sparks and small fires. No one was hurt, but some passengers sobbed 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."
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LOT said the plane suffered "a central hydraulic system failure," indicating that 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 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 that 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.
"I started to cry, and the men around me were also crying," said another passenger, Krystyna Dabrowska, 62. "I thought that was the end of me."
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.
"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, N.J. "It was a very lucky flight, a very, very great pilot. We are very fortunate."