NEWARK, N.J. – A United Airlines jetliner damaged its right wing when the landing gear failed to fully deploy Sunday at Newark Liberty International Airport — making for a frightening few moments for passengers before an "unbelievably smooth" touchdown that drew their praise.
Flight 634 from Chicago was approaching the airport about 9 a.m. when the plane suddenly began ascending again, said passenger Paul Wasylyszyn of Chicago.
The plane then began circling the airport, said Jim Falk of Middletown, N.J., who was sitting near the front of the plane.
"Normally a big plane like that doesn't do a bypass, so we knew something was wrong," said Falk, 40.
The crew advised the 48 passengers that there might be a problem with one of the plane's landing gears and they were trying to fix it. They were composed about the announcements, several passengers said, commending the crew for it.
Despite the problem, the mood was calm, even when passengers were instructed to gird themselves for a crash, said Falk, who sent several text messages to his wife about what was happening as she was on her way to pick him up from the airport.
Passengers braced themselves in "the crash position" Falk said.
Three minutes to landing, the passengers were told. And then:
"We went down the runway, however they did it," Falk said.
When the aircraft landed, part of it struck the runway, United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.
"They did a great job," Falk said of the captain and crew. "There was no yelling, screaming, panicking or anything."
Passengers cheered and sighed when the plane came to a stop, Wasylyszyn said. Then they hurried out through the emergency exits, sliding down the chutes that had deployed and running as fast as they could toward Port Authority buses that were waiting to take them to the terminal, Falk said.
Everyone got "as far as you could" away from the plane, he said.
Falk said he was especially thankful to have an experienced pilot at the controls.
"It was smooth — it was scary smooth," said Falk. The owner of an electrical contracting business, he was traveling on business and returning from Las Vegas.
"I've had a lot of worse landings at Newark before," said another passenger, Paul Lasiuk, a 46-year-old Chicago resident. "It was unbelievably smooth."
Some of the right wing area was damaged, but the extent of the damage was still being determined Sunday, and Urbanski said it was not immediately clear what caused the malfunction.
Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the Airbus 319's right main landing gear did not extend, though its nose and left main landing gear did, making for a bumpier-than-usual landing.
The airline announced Sunday afternoon that it would refund the 48 passengers' fares.
The plane, which had left Chicago about 6 a.m. local time, remained on one of the airport's three runways Sunday afternoon as investigators inspected it.
After the crew reported the problem, Newark airport was closed for about 20 minutes, said Ron Marsico, a spokesman for The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport. The airport's other two runways were reopened soon after the plane landed, but some arriving flights were still being delayed Sunday evening by about an hour.
The landing comes exactly one week after a man took advantage of a guard's absence to walk through a security checkpoint exit at Newark Liberty and say goodbye to his girlfriend, a security breach that triggered the shutdown of a busy terminal and led to major delays.
Haisong Jiang, 28, of Piscataway, N.J., was arrested Friday and faces a charge of trespassing and a fine of up to $500. He's due in court in Newark this week.
A friend of Jiang's, Ning Huang, said Saturday that he's known Jiang for years and that Jiang is "a very good person" who didn't realize the ramifications of his actions.