ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Crew members used 'a combination of backup systems' to lower crippled landing gear and safely land a four-engine Lockheed Electra with 15 people aboard, a federal official said Thursday.
'The crew did a fantastic job,' said James Michelangelo, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board office in Alaska. 'Our report will definitely bring that out.'
No one was hurt, but flames shot out from the wheels, and a tire blew as the pilot slammed on the brakes when he touched down the Lockheed Electra with its throttle stuck open Wednesday night. The nose gear collapsed as the plane came to rest and it sank to the runway.
'We got here and we are damned happy we're here,' said pilot James Gibson, a 24-year veteran with Reeve Aleutian Airlines. 'I've never had an airplane come unglued like that before.'
Michelangelo said the crew avoided a belly-landing on foam or ditching in a nearby inlet by getting the gear down 'using a combination of backup systems.'
The safety board dispatched a team of investigators from Washington, D.C. to question about 40 people and determine the cause of the mishap. The agency has taken the plane's log and flight and voice recorders, he said.
Reeve Aleutian Airlines called a news conference to discuss the accident but a company spokesman, Dave Jensen, told reporters: 'You know as much as we know at this point.' He refused further comment.
The plane landed after circling for two hours to burn off 88,000 gallons of fuel.
The Electra, carrying 10 passengers and a crew of five, was bound from Cold Bay, Alaska, to Seattle when it threw its No. 4 propeller shortly after takeoff. The propeller damaged the landing gear and jammed the three remaining engines at 'cruising speed,' about 190-200 knots an hour.
Passenger Richard Krueger, 37, a commercial fisherman from Seattle, said thre was a loud crash as the propeller went into the fuselage and he could feel the plane vibrating.
'We knew the prop came off,' he said. 'We looked out the window and it was gone.'
Oxygen masks dropped and pilot began lowering his altitude as he diverted the plane to Anchorage. Passengers kept on the masks until the plane leveled off at a lower altitude and the crew began instructing them on emergency landings -- both on land and in the sea.
Krueger said the worst part was flying over the ocean and worrying the plane would be forced to ditch.
'That was the worst part,' said Krueger, who works on a 130-foot crab fishing vessel. 'I could handle it crashing and landing, but out there it's something else.'
Fire and rescue equipment, along with ground technicians and other emergency officials, waited as the plane circled the airport.
'Flames were coming from the brakes under both wings,' a witness said. 'But they didn't spread. The emergency people on the runway had foam on that thing within 10 seconds after it stopped. It was that fast - that crash truck was right there.'