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Branson hails jet pilots and crew

Sir Richard Branson has added to the heartfelt thanks expressed by terrified passengers to the crew of a stricken Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet that landed safely at Gatwick airport.

Passengers on the packed Boeing 747 burst into applause as the plane, suffering from a major landing-gear fault, successfully touched down this afternoon at the West Sussex airport where emergency services were on standby.

Travellers, who had had to get into the brace position, spoke of a "textbook landing" and praised the calmness of the cabin crew and the cockpit crew who had got the Las Vegas-bound plane down safely despite one of the aircraft's five sets of landing gear not deploying.

Sir Richard, the Virgin president, said on Twitter: "Well done VirginAtlantic pilots & team for safe & skillful landing of VS43. Thoughts with passengers & crew, thanks for support & patience."

The 447 passengers were taken to the Hilton hotel at Gatwick Airport for the night before they prepare to fly again tomorrow at 11am on a specially arranged flight.

A spokesman for Gatwick airport said that "some minor injuries" had been reported. Virgin Atlantic could not confirm that there had been any injuries.

The runway at Gatwick was closed until 7pm, with incoming flights diverted and departing ones delayed.

Describing the mood on the plane, Dan Crane, 24, from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, said it was "anxious, a lot were worried, some crying. The mood was quiet and (we were) just waiting for the captain's next announcement."

Mr Crane, who was with family and friends, said the crew kept everyone informed, adding: "They said it was an emergency landing and we had to brace on impact."

The jet turned back soon after taking off late this morning and circled as it lost fuel ahead of what Virgin described as a "a non-standard landing procedure".

Passengers said they were initially told the fault was "hydraulic" before the pilot explained they would have to attempt a landing and the passengers were instructed to adopt the emergency "brace" position.

Dramatic photographs showed the jumbo jet landing with the right-side wing landing gear not deployed.

Trevor Stirling, who was travelling to Las Vegas with his wife Catherine and four other friends to mark a number of 40th birthdays, said: "The crew were almost chanting at us 'heads down, feet back' over and over throughout the landing.

"There were a few sharp bangs and jolts. Because we were in the brace position you're just hoping everything is going to be alright.

"Our children are three, seven and nine and we left them behind. There was a sense of 'what if something happens to us?' That thought was going round in my head.

"Once it was over everyone burst in to spontaneous applause. There was just palpable relief."

Anthony Bell, who was travelling with a group of friends to celebrate New Year, said: "I was very panicky. It wasn't until we landed and it was over that I really felt my nerves. It was horrible.

"You really do wonder, 'is this it?'.

"I have to pass on a massive thanks to the pilot, it seemed like he did a bloody good job. All the crew were great, the communication was fantastic. We're very grateful."

A spokesman for British pilots' organisation Balpa said: "Pilots train hard for exactly this kind of situation. It goes to show that well-trained pilots are vital."

A Gatwick airport spokesman said some passengers suffered minor injuries.

Sussex Police Chief Superintendent Martin Walker said: "Our co-ordinated partnership response is part of a well-rehearsed emergency procedure.

"We are delighted that the plane has landed safely and we will continue to support the operation where we're needed."

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Craig Kreeger said: "I am very pleased to confirm that all customers and crew have now disembarked the VS43 flight to Las Vegas, which returned to Gatwick airport this afternoon following a problem with one of the landing gear.

"I understand that this will have been a very upsetting situation for the customers involved, and for their friends and family, and will have significantly disrupted people's holiday plans.

"We will make sure they are well looked after this evening, and will be operating a special flight tomorrow for everyone who would like to continue their journey."

He went on: " I'm here at Gatwick to meet our customers and crew, and to thank them all for their fantastic response. I understand that people have already been phoning our contact centre - from the plane - to make sure that they are booked on tomorrow's special flight to Las Vegas.

"I want to reassure them that we'll make sure there's a seat for everyone and we really look forward to making sure they're in Vegas for an amazing New Year's Eve.

"I would like to thank all of the Virgin Atlantic crew and colleagues, who responded with the absolute professionalism and care for our customers that we would expect."

A Gatwick airport spokesman said: "The runway at Gatwick airport reopened at 7.03pm following the earlier emergency landing of Virgin Atlantic flight VS43.

"The airport is now facilitating inbound and outbound flights but it will take some time for normal service to resume.

"We advise passengers to check with their airlines on the status of their flight. Updates will also be posted on the Gatwick website and on Twitter.

"We are working with our airline partners to provide food, drink and welfare facilities for those passengers whose flights may either have been delayed or cancelled.

"Gatwick staff and volunteers are being made available throughout the airport to offer passengers advice and the latest information."

Balpa chairman Captain Brendan O'Neal said: "These pilots have had to put into practise their years of training and experience to keep their aircraft and passengers safe today. They did a very professional job in difficult circumstances.

"Pilots across the UK and across all airlines know that although incidents like this are rare, they could happen to any of us, and we have huge respect for the crews who fly with such skill and professionalism when it is needed.

"On behalf of the British Airline Pilots' Association, I want to pay tribute to the crew for keeping the passengers on this flight safe."

He said he was confident the cause of the landing gear failure would be identified quickly and resolved.

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