Emergency Landing Waylays Students

Passengers were ‘calm and oblivious’ to the plane’s technical difficulties

Sparks flew at the start of vacation on Dec. 20 as a group of Harvard undergraduates on a flight home to Wisconsin braved an emergency landing shortly after takeoff at Logan Airport.

But the students, who later nicknamed themselves "Survivors of Midwest Flight 210" in an ironic facebook group, said the landing was far from death-defying and had been sensationalized in media coverage on the ground.

Twenty minutes after takeoff, the pilot informed passengers over the intercom that the indicator light for the plane’s landing gear was malfunctioning, recalled Sopen B. Shah ’08, who was on the flight. The pilot said he would circle the plane around Logan for an hour and a half to burn fuel before landing.

"A lot of the Harvard kids going to Wisconsin were wondering why we weren’t going anywhere after spending two hours in the air," Shah said.

Logan air traffic controllers had noticed sparks coming from the rear of the plane shortly after it took off, according to Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. A ball bearing, which controls the landing wheels, had failed on the outermost tire on the right side of the Boeing 717 aircraft, he said.

The bearing’s failure caused the wheel to wobble and tear up additional bearings. "When the bearing failed," Peters said, "it separated the wheel from the axel, exposing the brake pads, causing the sparking." The plane had been in service for only a few months, he noted.

But the Harvard students on the plane reported that passengers appeared calm and oblivious to the details of the mechanical failure, which attracted live coverage on several cable networks.

Rachel M. Moore ’08, another passenger, said her mother was flipping channels at home when she came upon CNN, which showed the plane in the air and featured experts giving, alternately, reassuring and gloomy prognoses.

The network showed video of an airplane crash the day before in Miami, which had no survivors. "They kept showing pictures of planes exploding," Moore said.

"My parents were very, very upset about the situation," she said. "It was a lot worse for everyone on the ground."

Despite the issues with the landing gear, the plane’s landing was uneventful, passengers said. "I actually thought the so-called emergency landing was more smooth than a regular landing," said Moore. "If you had told me it was compromised landing gear, I wouldn’t have guessed it. They came in very slowly."

The Harvard students, along with the flight’s other passengers, were set up at the airport Hilton for the night and provided dinner, they said. It was only when the students were eating in the hotel and watching the news coverage on television that they realized what exactly had happened. "We were all like, it was that bad?" Shah said.

And in the true Harvard student tradition, Shah came up with the idea to form a facebook group commemorating the ordeal. She called it, "Survivors of Midwest Flight 210." The group had nine members as of last night.

"It was an interesting experience, not as life harrowing as they made it seem," Shah said. "But you just think it won’t happen to you or your plane."

—Staff writer Katherine M. Gray can be reached at kmgray@fas.harvard.edu.