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Terror on Belfast to New York flight: 'Atmosphere was tense, we were so scared'

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 25/10/2016

Reporter Lesley-Anne McKeown with her husband Brendan
Reporter Lesley-Anne McKeown with her husband Brendan

We were heading to New York for three nights to celebrate my husband Brendan's 40th birthday. I am 29 weeks pregnant and had to get a letter from the doctor to say I was okay to fly.

Everything was normal with the take-off but shortly afterwards, as the wheels were coming up, we heard an usual sort of noise which was followed by a really loud grinding noise.

That persisted for a while and then one of the senior flight officers came over the tannoy and said there was a mechanical problem. He said there was 'nothing to worry about... at this point'. When he said 'at this point' I got worried. He said we would hear this noise for the duration of the flight.

Maybe 20 minutes later the captain came over the tannoy and said there was a problem with the landing gear. We had turned south and were heading to Shannon Airport and we were going to have to circle for two hours to burn off fuel because we were too heavy to land.

I was concerned and quite worried. Brendan was reassuring me, saying, 'There's nothing to worry about, it's fine'. But as time went on you could see the cabin crew speaking to various people. There was a US solider behind us - they spoke to him and asked would he mind sitting at one of the emergency exits and help out in the case of an emergency evacuation.

They were also briefing everyone sitting at emergency doors on what to do, how to get people out and down the slides. They were also speaking to a number of nurses and doctors who were on board.

So the atmosphere was tense. People were just worried. They were trying to keep their spirits up but you could see people were worried and scared. This lasted for two hours.

We had to do a fly-past at Shannon Airport so they could see whether the front wheels were up or down. They confirmed the wheels were down. There was a palpable sense of relief but they still didn't know whether they were in the lock position and could take the impact of the landing.

Then they had to turn off the cabin pressure - they told us that's why we could feel our ears popping. We came down to 3,000ft and then at 1,000ft they told us to adopt the brace position. So the cabin crew were shouting 'brace, brace' at us as we came in to land.

But that's not when I was most frightened. That was when they were doing the fly-past. I was holding Brendan's hand and I was holding the hand of the woman beside me - I grabbed her hand. She was on her own so I thought I'll just hold her hand too, even though she was a former US Air Force doctor.

There was huge relief when we landed. Some people were crying with relief. There was a massive round of applause for the captain and the crew, and they deserved it.

There were lighter moments. When everyone was trying to keep their spirits up the woman in front of us turned to the woman beside her and said 'at least it's not raining'. Typical Belfast humour.

  • Lesley-Anne McKeown is a reporter with Press Association

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