Warsaw: The Polish pilot hailed for landing a Boeing 767 jetliner on its belly after its landing gear failed stepped into the public eye looking stiff and uncomfortable, and has insisted that all the talk of heroism is exaggerated.
Captain Tadeusz Wrona set the jetliner down so gently that many of the 231 people on board thought it had landed on its wheels — until they saw fire, sparks and smoke rising from beneath the aircraft as it slid down the Warsaw airport runway.
The 54-year-old pilot for the Polish national carrier LOT deflected the praise on Wednesday, saying he merely did what he was trained to do.
"We knew we could make no mistake and that the contact with the ground should not be hard," Wrona told a news conference in Warsaw. "I am absolutely sure that each of us (pilots) would have done it the same way, and that the result would have been the same."
In the United States, video of Wrona`s landing on Tuesday immediately evoked memories of the "miracle on the Hudson”, when Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed a crippled US Airways jet in the Hudson River in 2009 and saved 155 lives.
His voice shaking at times as he struggled for words, Wrona said he felt "a huge relief" when he knew everyone aboard the flight from Newark, New Jersey, had reached safety — and he wondered whether he might have executed the landing even more effectively.
"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."
LOT says the plane suffered "a central hydraulic system failure”, that caused all three sections of the landing gear — the nose gear and the two main underwing gears — to fail. Such a complete undercarriage failure was unprecedented for a Boeing 767 and highly unusual overall, according to aviation data and experts.
Sullenberger said the Warsaw incident brought back memories of his Hudson splashdown, and praised what he called a "great outcome”.
"This required great piloting skill," Sullenberger said in an interview on CNN on Tuesday.
"This is not like a normal landing," he said. "Without the landing gear underneath you, as you approach the runway to land, your eyes in the cockpit will be much lower, much closer to the runway. It`s going to be a different picture looking out the window. You have to account for that."
Several Facebook pages sprang up to express admiration for Wrona, with some calling him a "superhero”. ``Fly like an eagle and land like a crow," they proclaimed, playing on the word "wrona”, Polish for crow.
Yet Wrona tried to play down his feat with humour.
"I heard that a passenger in the back complained about feeling a bump," he said, eliciting laughter from reporters.
Some experts said that despite the fortunate outcome in Warsaw, it was a stretch to compare Wrona`s landing to Sullenberger`s.
Wrona landed a fully operational plane at an international airport where fire and rescue services were waiting, said Kevin Hiatt, a former international chief pilot for Delta Air Lines who is now executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation. Sullenberger had no power after a flock of geese disabled the engines, forcing him to ditch in the Hudson and wait for local boats to rescue passengers and crew from the wings.
"The Polish pilots had control over their descent and touchdown, while Sully had essentially a glider on his hands," Hiatt said.
Wrona is a glider pilot in his free time, and Polish media attributed his gentle landing to that experience. But Wrona said he didn`t see that as terribly relevant, noting that he had power from his engines the entire time. He said gliding experience was probably more relevant for Sullenberger.
Still, the landing in Warsaw was a huge morale boost to a nation that is still heavily focused on the aviation disaster in Smolensk, Russia, last year 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.
"We held our breath, fearing another air tragedy," commentator Michal Szuldrzynski wrote in the conservative daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita.
"Most of the observers of the operation (at Warsaw airport) certainly had in their memories scenes from a year and a half ago, from Smolensk," Szuldrzynski said.
"At that time, things ended in a catastrophe. This time we were witnesses to a miracle."