The Carpatair flight's front landing gear became stuck and the plane circled Timisoara International Airport for almost two hours Saturday, using up its fuel to avoid a potential fire before it landed on a 200-yard (200-meter) long bed of foam laid out by firefighters, officials said.
One of the pilots later said they were about six miles (10 kilometers) from the airport when they discovered they had a problem with the landing gear, and alerted the aviation authorities.
"We did our job without feeling like heroes," Moldovan pilot Iurie Oleacov told reporters. "We weren't scared, we are trained for these kinds of situations." But Oleacov, 37, said he had never encountered this situation outside of training sessions.
"All the passengers are OK. They were calm," he added.
In a tape-recorded conversation in English between the pilot and an operator in the control tower, the operator says the plane could land in 10 minutes. The pilot responds that the plane is running out of fuel and needs to land in five minutes. He is given the OK.
The company said Oleacov and the other Moldovan pilot, Leonid Babischi, 47, were highly experienced.
"The plane came down on the side wheels; it braked sharply and at a low speed it came on its front belly, while the front landing gear remained stuck," Dan Andrei, the airline's vice president, said.
At least 10 ambulances and three fire engines were waiting for the stricken plane when it landed, the emergency department said.
The Saab 2000 aircraft was carrying 47 passengers and four crew members on its flight from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, to Timisoara, airport spokeswoman Carmen Stoica said. Romanian border police, who deal with international customs, said the plane was carrying 11, Romanians, 23 Moldovans, nine Italians, two Greeks and two Germans. The crew is Moldovan.
Timisoara ambulance chief Iancu Leonida said no one was hurt, but people were very frightened.
"There are no injured people, although some might have minor scratches, but they are very scared and traumatized," he said. "They are being given medical care."
Realitatea TV broadcast footage of passengers hugging and kissing people who had come to meet them at the airport. One unidentified female passenger with gray hair and tears in her eyes told the TV the passengers did not know about the landing gear and had thought there was a problem with ice and fog.
The airport was closed for 2 1/2 hours Saturday morning after the incident.
A Romanian Transportation Ministry team arrived in Timisoara to investigate.
Foaming agents are used less often now than they once were for commercial aircraft that can't lower their landing gear, said Gideon Ewers, a spokesman for International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations.
He said foam was used more widely in the 1940s and 1950s to prevent gasoline bursting into flames.
"It's quite unusual these days to get foam because jet fuel is much less volatile than gasoline that was used in piston engine airliners," he said in a telephone interview from London.
Previous similar incidents include:
— Nov. 16, 2008: A US Airways Express Dash 8-300 with 38 passengers and crew slid along the runway in Philadelphia with its nose gear stuck. Fire crews spread foam as a precaution. No one was injured.
— March 20, 1999: An Iberia airlines MD87 on approach to Geneva with 101 passengers requested foaming after its nose gear failed to lower. It landed smoothly.
— Sept. 24 1997: An Olympic Aviation Dornier 228 with 19 people aboard carried out a successful emergency landing at the Tanagra air base near Athens after foam was spread on the runway.
— Feb. 10, 1988, an Aeroflot TU-154 airliner with 166 people aboard skidded for about a mile (more than 1.5 kilometers) along the runway in Dushanbe, Kyrgyzstan, after a hydraulic failure. Foam was laid along the entire runway and no one was injured.
Despite its success in such incidents, the effectiveness of foaming continues to be debated within the aviation community. Some airport fire services consider it unnecessary, saying it provides little or no benefit.