CNN said the plane, US Express Flight 4560, operated by Piedmont Airlines, took off from Philadelphia about 11 p.m. EDT Friday. As the pilot guided the plane toward the runway he was alerted to a problem with the landing gear and pulled the plane back up in the air.
Passengers told The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger they initially thought it was a routine delay. Only after an hour of circling the airport did they realize something was amiss, when the pilot exited the cockpit with a flashlight to perform an inspection -- and deliver some terrifying news.
The pilot and three-member crew calmly informed the 31 passengers of the need to attempt a "belly landing" and rehearsed safety procedures for the maneuver.
Linda Demarest of Pompton Plains, N.J. -- one of 34 people aboard -- described a harrowing scene, with passengers crying, holding hands and calling and texting loved ones with what may have been a last goodbye.
"I just kept thinking of my family and how much I loved them," Demarest said. "I thought I was never going to see them again."
About 200 feet from the ground, the pilot came on the intercom and shouted "Crash! Crash! Crash!" Demarest said. The plane landed with a thud -- and when it finally came to rest after skidding along the runway, remarkably, no one was hurt.
"We felt that initial force of it hitting the ground. It was screeching and sliding and moving all over," as it slid down the runway, she said. "It was making sparks fly around the plane."
Firefighters assembled on the ground rushed to the plane and doused it with foam to prevent a fire. The cabin filled with smoke but all aboard were able to evacuate without further incident.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. The Dash-8 airplane is a similar model to Continental Connections Flight 3407 that took off from Newark and crashed outside Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009. That crash, which killed all aboard and a man on the ground, was laid to pilot error, not a technical problem.