A Boeing 767 out of Newark Liberty International Airport with 231 people on board made an emergency landing in Poland after its landing gear failed to open.
Capt. Tadeusz Wrona, who handled the descent so smoothly that many on board thought the plane landed on its wheels, was instantly hailed a hero in Poland and online, where within hours he was the focus of several Facebook fanpages.
"I was praying for the pilot not to lose control because we started to make circles over the airport. It was terrible," passenger Teresa Kowalik told reporters at the airport. "We owe everything to the pilot. He really did a great job."
LOT airlines said the plane suffered "a central hydraulic system failure," indicating that the hydraulics used to extend the landing gear failed.
The pilots discovered there was a problem before touching ground. They circled the 767 above the airport for about one hour before descending without lowering the wheels, said Przemyslaw Przybylski, a spokesman for the Warsaw airport.
The plane, escorted by two F-16 fighter jets, landed with nearly empty fuel tanks after dumping fuel in preparation for the emergency landing, LOT spokesman Leszek Chorzewski said.
Rescuers laid out special flame retardant foam for the plane to land on. On landing, sparks flew from the engine and small fires erupted under the plane but were immediately put out by firefighters. The passengers evacuated the plane using an emergency slide.
The pilot told passengers four hours into the flight that the plane faced technical problems, said a passenger who would only give her first name, Malgorzata.
"The pilot addressed us a number of times and said we should follow instructions. Later, a flight attendant said there might be a fire, and at that point people began to get nervous and uncertain," she said.
The landing was not hard, but the situation became alarming when sparks and black smoke rose from the plane, said Krzysztof Rozycki, a 17-year-old passenger who spoke to reporters.
"This is the moment where we realized this was not a normal landing," added Andrzej Pinno, a 68-year-old who divides his time between Poland and the U.S. "The attendants then directed us to the slides and helped us evacuate."
Relatives of passengers waiting at the airport sought information as the emergency unfolded.
Joanna Dabrowska, 29, managed to speak to her mother-in-law, a passenger, via mobile phone after she evacuated the flight. Dabrowska said some of the passengers apparently feared the worst.
"People were saying their final farewells to each other and some were sobbing," Dabrowska told The Associated Press. She added that her mother-in-law "was in shock, but she was fine."
Passengers were taken to a medical center where they were kept several hours before being released.
Meanwhile, Polish officials and media declared the pilots and crew heroes. LOT said there were 11 crew and 220 passengers on the LO 016 flight.
LOT airlines president, Marcin Pirog, told reporters that Wrona and co-pilot Jerzy Szwartz carried out a "perfect emergency landing," which prevented anyone from being injured.
"It is the first time a LOT plane had to land without the landing gear out," Pirog said, noting that such landings do not always end well.
Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski congratulated and thanked the crew and emergency workers for ensuring no one was hurt.
"I thank everyone with my whole heart in the name of Poland," Komorowski said.
On Twitter, admiration for the pilot was profuse. One Tweeter insisted, "Give that pilot a medal!" Others drew comparisons to Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.