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Polish pilot felt huge relief after safe landing

November 2, 2011

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Hailed as a hero for his smooth emergency landing of a Boeing jet, a Polish pilot said he felt a “huge relief” once his passengers evacuated the plane but wondered whether he could have done even better.

Capt. Tadeusz Wrona, 54, softly placed the LOT airlines plane carrying 231 people from Newark, New Jersey, on its belly at Warsaw airport, gaining instant hero status in Poland. Some attributed his gentle landing to his years of experience as a glider pilot.

In the United States, video of Wrona’s landing immediately evoked memories of the “miracle on the Hudson,” when Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed a crippled US Airways jet in the Hudson River in 2009 and saved 155 lives.

At a news conference Wednesday in Warsaw, Wrona appeared uncomfortable with all the accolades, insisting that calling him a hero was “exaggerated.”

“I am absolutely sure that each of us would have done it the same way, and that the result would have been the same,” Wrona said in his dark blue pilot’s uniform with golden insignia. “We tried to put the plane down as gently as we could and we were successful.”

But he added that he kept playing the landing over and over again in his mind, imagining if he might have executed it better.

Co-pilot Jerzy Szwarc told The Associated Press he was calm and had a sense of “deja-vu” during the landing, after having trained for emergency touchdowns many times on a flight simulator.

Wrona focused mostly on the technical aspects of his landing, revealing only a small hint of emotion — the enormous sense of relief he felt when all his passengers and crew had reached safety.

“When I stopped on the runway, I still was not sure that everyone was safe because smoke and some burning from friction appeared on the ground,” Wrona said. “I felt huge relief when the head flight attendant reported that the plane was empty.”

Passengers on board the plane described Tuesday’s landing as so smooth they thought they had landed on wheels. However, sparks, smoke and small fires under the plane erupted on landing, and emergency workers immediately doused the plane with water.

One reporter asked him about the exceptional landing. Wrona joked that he heard one passenger in the back complain about feeling a bump, eliciting chuckles from journalists.

Several Facebook pages sprang up immediately to express admiration for Wrona, with some calling him a “superhero.” ″Fly like an eagle and land like a crow,” runs a phrase that has appeared on Facebook, playing on the word “wrona,” Polish for crow.

The landing is an inspiration to a nation that is still heavily focused on the aviation disaster in Smolensk, Russia, in April 2010, in which President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others died when their plane crashed in heavy fog.

A Polish government report put much of the blame for that accident on poor pilot training and faulty security procedures within the Polish air force. In contrast, the Polish crew’s landing of the faulty plane has been hailed as masterful and a textbook-perfect example of how to carry out an emergency procedure.

President Bronislaw Komorowski — Kaczynski’s successor — praised the crew and emergency workers on the ground and said he plans to bestow state decorations on them.

The State Commission for Examining Air Accidents said Wednesday it has opened an investigation into the reasons of the plane’s malfunctioning

Meanwhile, a team of Boeing experts from the United States arrived in Poland on Wednesday to offer advice on removing the plane from the runway and to inspect its technical condition, LOT President Maciej Pirog said.

Warsaw airport remained closed, but Pirog said LOT was hoping to resume its flights Wednesday night, after the plane is moved from the intersection of two runways. Cranes were lifting the plane from the runway Wednesday evening.

Pirog refused to give cost estimate for the airport stoppage, but said 12,000 passengers and 280 flights go through Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin airport daily.

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.

“I have flown this plane 500 times and this is the first time the undercarriage did not open,” Wrona said.

“I will pilot it again with pleasure because it is one of the newest planes in the LOT fleet,” Wrona said. “I hope it can be repaired. These are very well-made planes.”

It would be weeks before it is known if the plane can be put back into service, Pirog said.

Meanwhile, heavy fog grounded planes at several Polish airports that were to have taken over some of the flights in and out of Warsaw. Airports in Krakow, Lodz, Katowice, Gdansk and Poznan have had to cancel or postpone departures and arrivals due to the fog.

“Maybe it would have been better for the company if the slide on the belly ended 300 meters (yards) further down the runway,” Wrona joked. “But Boeing manuals don’t say how far the plane can slide on its belly,” he said, again drawing laughter from reporters.

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