Air traffic controllers kept cool during plane's belly landing

FAA releases tower audio of airplane's emergency landing

By Ursula Pari - Anchor

SAN ANTONIO - Audio recordings from the emergency landing Tuesday at San Antonio International Airport reveal that calm, cool air traffic controllers and an equally calm pilot may have been the key factors in a textbook belly landing.

The plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, eperienced faulty landing gear on Tuesday afternoon, forcing its pilot to circle the aiport for more than an hour burning off fuel before landing it without landing gear.

The Federal Aviation Administration released selected digital cuts of the hours-long drama to KSAT 12, which clearly showed a remarkably relaxed team-effort to bring the private plane down safely without injury.

"It appears the left main (landing gear) is not down. The door is open but the gear is not down," was one of the visual reports offered by air traffic controller James Whitener, who asked the pilot to fly past their big picture windows on the seventh floor of the airport's tower.

Multiple emergency personnel reported the same problem. 

Eventually the unnamed pilot makes the call: "We've hand-cranked all  the way. That's going to be it.  We will have to declare an emergency."

Whitener relayed the impending emergency to his team on the ground and in the air, calling for fire units to deploy and a step-by-step protocol to keep the airport running using its main runway while the little plane with four on board began test landings on a smaller one. 

Looking back, Whitener said, "I had several crashes in the Air Force that I saw, but nothing prepares you for it, so you just do the best you can with what you got. "

Fellow controller John Davis' job was to keep the other commercial passenger jets and other aircraft moving -- but out of the way.

He said it was a remarkable few hours, and more than once he noticed how smoothly the emergency was being handled by everyone, including the pilot.

When the Bonanza finally landed, he said it was textbook and everyone felt a bit of emotion when Whitener reported of the aircraft in his care, "Aircraft is landed. Three souls out walking."

Davis said unlike in the movies, however, "It was business as usual. (We had to) get back to the next arrival (and) get the airport rolling again. But inside, everybody's breathing a big sigh of relief. There were a few high fives."

As for Whitener, he said he's not the hero -- it's the pilot who deserves the credit.

"I never met him. I don't know his name. But he's a heck of a pilot," Whitener said.

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